And I don’t mean the “I’ll be back” kind. No, I’m reading a ton of memoirs right now which I will feature here soon. But until then, I’d like to post some of my favorite passages from new and old books for you to enjoy. Also, I’m ever fascinated by those first lines of a book. How do they do it? Draw us in and reveal so much with so few words? Let’s examine how.
Here’s the second paragraph taken from Steve Almond’s Not That You Asked:
“The truth is, I don’t give a shit how many books you sell. (This directed at Oprah Winfrey) I don’t care how much dough you give away, or how many famous people you make cry. At the end of the day, you’re a TV star. You show up on a tiny screen and give lonely people a place to park their emotions for an hour. You’re the world’s leading retailer of inspiration. You’re the Walmart of hope.”
Ouch. Right? But, he isn’t like anyone I’ve read and he won’t be. His voice is there, a stack of spaghetti and meatballs. It’s filling.
Now I’m going to reach into…drum roll please…the tomes of yesteryear…The Dubliners. Yes, I can annoy with my boasting of my undergrad accelerated James Joyce class (with Farkas, who’s passed, RIP). Not only did we read and understand Ulysses, we read the Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young man. I told you. Well, here’s the whole first page from An Encounter:
“It was Joe Dillon who introduced the Wild West to us. He had a little library made up of old numbers of The Union Jack, Pluck and The Half-penny Marvel. Every evening after school we met in his back garden and arranged Indian battles. He and his fat young brother Leo the idler held the loft of the stable while we tried to carry it by storm; or we fought a pitched battle on the grass. But, however well we fought, we never won siege or battle and all our bouts ended with Joe Dillon’s war dance of victory. His parents went to eight-o’clock mass every morning in Gardiner Street and the peaceful odor of Mrs Dillon was prevalent in the hall of the house. But he played too fiercely for us who were younger and more timid.”
Why quote Joyce when we know he was brilliant? I just like to sidle up to the way he brings up disparate descriptions that reveal a larger picture of the character and finally connect to an ironic leap. If you read on, we find out this: “Everyone was incredulous when it was reported that he had a vocation for the priesthood. Nevertheless it was true.”
Next: I wish I could affect this voice. I’d just copy it, word by word.
“So let me dish you this comedy about a family I knew when I was growing up. There’s a part for me in this story, like there always is for a gossip, but more on that later. That’s Rick Moody’s intro to The Ice Storm. You know, I always sit down to write this way, regular, off the hip, down to earth, but it never comes out “natural.”
I’ve written about Kent Haruf before. Or maybe I just dreamed it? Kent makes me want to stop writing. Forever. If I scraped all the skin off my body, I wouldn’t uncover the most economical writing in the world found in his novels.
Here’s from the first page:”On the other hand, I don’t suppose Bud Sealy ever intended to become a son of a bitch at all. As late as nine days ago he was sitting on a barstool at the lunch counter in the Holt Cafe. It was a Friday afternoon; it was about two-thirty, that slack time that comes every day for him when he’s got all his paper work filled out, when there isn’t a thing more for him to do except wait for the high school kids to get out of school so they can begin to race up and down Main Street or drive out onto U.S, 34 and cut cookies on the blacktop.”
I know 34 very well so it hurts how well he describes these towns along it. But let’s study his last sentence. It’s a Hemingway sentence. I studied these in my undergrad writing class. They’re a set up. A way to be nonchalant about pointing. Instead of “X marks the spot” they’re putting you in the spot so you can look around and see its hard lines.
That’s all I got for now. Read it and weep. At least I’ll be weeping while trying to learn from a handful of greats. Wait until I get to unpack my library, folks. That will be disparate, indeed.