grist

 

Friday, January 21, 2005
So I, like everyone else, like endings and beginnings. When I am deciding whether to read something, I read, like everyone else, the beginning. And the blurbs-I know they are all meaningless hyperbole, but are they the right kind of meaningless hyperbole--is the vein all about dark prophetic essentiality? is it bleakly spiritual? (never concerned with "faith"--though I am--because books with blurbs about faith are inevitably callow--Thomas Kinkade books, where you have a sense that for an appropriate price, a specially trained retoucher might name a dog after you, or set an episode at your old and much beloved summer camp.) And are the blurbs from the right people? Is the book good enough to compel someone I respect to forsake some small measure of integrity to offer up this hyperbole? It must be good. Once past the semiotics of the blurbs, it is the opening that is its first and last best chance to grab me (not the jacket copy--that only tells you how good a writer the editorial assistant was). I like sensing the effort--the opening has been paid particular attention, revised, slaved over, worried at--the writer is at his or her most solicitous, most desperate, most carnival barkery. They are establishing voice, style, tone; they are laying out the knot they will unravel. They are setting off, auditioning, with all of the fraught ambition that brings, and I love them for it.

I have been reading the new Best American Short Stories this year (Lorrie Moore likes'em loooong....), and thought it would be interesting to put up the openings of the stories (reflections on the aggregate to follow typing them all in). In order:

"One day you have a home and the next you don't, but I'm not going to tell you my particular reasons for being homeless, because it's my secret story, and Indians have to work hard to keep secrets from hungry white folks."

"The weather had absolutely nothing to do with it--though the rain had been falling off and on throughout the day and the way the gutters were dripping made me feel as if despair were the mildest term in the dictionary--because I would have gone down to Daggett's that afternoon even if the sun were shining and all the fronds of the palm trees were gilded with light."

"Hassan comes to me on Tuesday nights."

"It wasn't even Halloween yet, but Ms. Hempel was already thinking about her anecdotals."

"How as I supposed to know that any mention of suicide to the phalanx of doctors making Friday rounds would warrant the loss of not only weekend-pass privileges but also the liberty to take a leak in private?"

"Sundays have always been depressing enough without having to do a job."

"I don't know why I committed us to any of those things," said Otto."

"Once they were out in the street, Grace, his dog, paid no attention to John Hillman, unless she wanted to range farther than her leash permitted."

"She was an American girl, but one who apparently kept Bombay time, because it was 3:30 when she arrived for their 1:00 appointment."

"Horace and Loneese Perkins--one child, one grandchild--lived most unhappily together for more than twelve years in Apartment 320 at Sunset House, a building for senior citizens at 1202 Thirteenth Street Northwest."

"The morning after her granddaughter's frantic phone call, Lorraine skipped her usual coffee session at the Limestone Diner and drove out to the accident scene instead."

"The intervention is not Marilyn's idea, but it might as well be."

"The day we planned the trip, I told Louise that I didn't like going to Idaho via the Gallatin Canyon."

"Carla heard the car coming before it topped the little rise in the road that around here they called a hill."

"Word was that the missionary kid had a demon, though no one was supposed to know."

"Budgel Wolfscale, a telegraph clerk from Missouri on his way to Montana to search for the yellow metal, stopped at a Wyoming road ranch one day in 1898 for a supper of fried venison and coffee, heard there was good range."

"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, from hither and yon, and welcome to the Lee Chapel on the campus of historic Washington and Lee University."

"Their class had graduated from Olinger High School in 1952, just before the name was regionalized out of existence."

"The Kashigawa district, two hours from the Endos' home in Tokyo, was an isolated farming community with two claims to distinction: indigenous harrier monkeys up in the hills, and a new restaurant--Fireside Rations--that served "rice" made from locally grown yams."

"I have a friend with a son in prison."

It is interesting, in typing these, to feel the choices in them, the effortful push off. Each one has a hook, though some straining more than others--often just a word (anecdotals). I was struck by the number that begin with a negative assertion: "not Marilyn's idea", "paid no attention", "depressing enough without", "The weather had absolutely nothing to do with it"--establishing some resistance for the story to work against--starting action with reaction. More thoughts will come, but for now I'll let you digest. Footrace them--best and worst?



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