Isn't This Where We Came In?

by Monte Williams

20 Apr 2010

Image (partial) found on Dragon Crafted.com 

A new beginning. Something fresh, preferably even startling. I like to think that I am uniquely equipped to assert that a truly original beginning is an exquisitely rare novelty; my cranky impatience seldom permits me to indulge an author or singer past his opening sentence, because my attitude towards popular culture is essentially this: I am a busy, bored, irritable man, so I require you to present me with a bold, daring experience, and it had best grab me right from the start.

This seldom happens, of course, and one can only tolerate “Once upon a time…” and “It was a dark and stormy night…” so many times, and so my pursuit of narrative novelty has led to the development of an unlikely hobby. I can trace its beginnings to 2002, when I wrote a review of Robert Mailer Anderson’s Boonville for a now-defunct website. Here is an excerpt from that review: “If I told you that the first word in the novel is ‘Boonville’ and the last is ‘Yee-haw,’ you might fairly assume that Robert Mailer Anderson lets the obvious gags write themselves.”

In response, Anderson told me via e-mail that “Boonville. Yee-haw.” is the “Reader’s Digest condensed version” of his novel. Ever since then, I have made a point of studying the opening and closing sentences of novels and songs. There is nothing clever or noble in this enterprise. It is not criticism; it is trivia. Still, the results are often amusing, and sometimes revelatory. For example, when taken together, the opening and closing lines of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany are powerful enough to bring one to tears:

I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.

O God—please give him back! I shall keep asking You.

Normally, I might finish a given book and then happen to look back at the opening sentence for a quick first-last comparison, or some half-heard lyric might inspire me to hastily google a song to compare its opening and closing words. For this essay, I actively sought dozens or perhaps even hundreds of books and songs for the first-line/last-line experiment. (As many books as were readily available at our small school in Eritrea; as many songs as I brought with me from the States in my iPod.)

Some of the books I’d never read before (I assured myself that I’ll have forgotten any unwelcome spoilers by the time I sit down to read these books from beginning to end), and others, like A Prayer for Owen Meany, are old favorites. (Incidentally, I attended a reading by John Irving back in 2005, and it’s worth noting that before Irving begins reading his chosen selection, he first reads the final sentence from the selection so as to assist the audience on a pacing level and to avoid any awkward pre-applause pauses.)

Another favorite author of mine is Larry McMurtry, whose Pulitzer-winning Lonesome Dove is one of the most violent and tragic epics available in print. Not that you’d know that if you only had the first and last sentences to go by:

When Augustus came out on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake—not a very big one.

They say he missed that whore.

McMurtry’s readers will not be surprised by the understated quality of these sentences, nor by their brevity. Somewhat less concise are the opening and closing sentences of E.L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate:

He had to have planned it because when we drove onto the dock the boat was there and the engine was running and you could see the water churning up phosphorescence in the river, which was the only light there was because there was no moon, nor no electric light either in the shack where the dockmaster should have been sitting, nor on the boat itself, and certainly not from the car, yet everyone knew where everything was, and when the big Packard came down the ramp Mickey the driver braked it so that the wheels hardly rattled the boards, and when he pulled up alongside the gangway doors were already open and they hustled Bo and the girl upside before they even made a shadow in all that darkness.

There was some confusion after that, of course, we had to go out and buy bottles and diapers, he didn’t come with any instructions, and my mother was a little slow remembering some of the things that had to be done when he cried and waved his arms about, but we adjusted to him soon enough and what I think of now is how we used to like to go back to the East Bronx with him and walk him in his carriage on a sunny day along Bathgate Avenue, with all the peddlers calling out their prices and the stalls stacked with pyramids of oranges and grapes and peaches and melons, and the fresh bread in the windows of the bakeries with the electric fans in their transoms sending hot bread smells into the air, and the dairy with its tubs of butter and wood packs of farmer’s cheese, and the butcher wearing his thick sweater under his apron walking out of his ice room with a stack of chops on oiled paper, and the florist on the corner wetting down the vases of clustered cut flowers, and the children running past, and the gabbling old women carrying their shopping bags of greens and chickens, and the teenage girls holding white dresses on hangers to their shoulders, and the truckmen in their undershirts unloading their produce, and the horns honking and all the life of the city turning out to greet us just as in the old days of our happiness, before my father fled, when the family used to go walking in this market, this bazaar of life, Bathgate, in the age of Dutch Schultz.

I confess: there’s no startling parallels or haunting symmetry whatsoever to those two sentences. I was just amused, during my research, to note that any two sentences from E.L. Doctorow are as long as a complete story by most other writers. (Would that PopMatters paid by the word; I’d contrive some feeble manner of justification for quoting Doctorow every month—perhaps they’re on to this.)

To my knowledge, S.E. Hinton and Stephen King are unique in having used the same line to open and close a novel. In Hinton’s The Outsiders, Ponyboy begins the tale thusly: “When I stepped out into the bright sunlight, from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman, and a ride home.” By novel’s end, the reader learns that the entire novel has been Ponyboy’s school essay; the story ends with Ponyboy beginning his essay: “When I stepped out into the bright sunlight, from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman, and a ride home.”

In King’s case, none of his novels technically open and end with the same line. However, the first book in his series of seven Dark Tower novels begins with the same sentence with which King closes the final volume: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

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