Monday, August 8, 2011

Opening Lines

Francis Marion Tarwater's uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Saviour at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up.
Chase recently shared a short list of some of his favorite opening lines. That sparked me to think of mine. Above is my all-time favorite, which just happens to open my all-time favorite novel--The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O'Connor. I wouldn't go about arguing that it's the best novel of all-time, since most people don't even think it's her best work. But it's my favorite.

I often like run-on opening sentences. Another:
I told you last night that I might be gone sometimes, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I'm old, and you said, I don't think you're old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren't very old, as if that settled it.
That's Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. And, yeah, I included the second sentence. You twit.

But, then, I'm a big fan of concise opening sentences too. My second favorite, from Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons:
When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy.
I've mentioned it before. As I wrote then, I love how only two words have more than one syllable, and how there are no commas, so the sentence just flows through. And how the last three words are something of a punch in the gut.

Even more concise:
See the child.
John Somerville wonderfully unpacked how Cormac McCarthy opens his brutal Blood Meridian with a pastoral, Biblical hue.

Jim Shepard has some great and varied openings in his wonderful collection, like you'd understand anyway. My favorite, from "The Zero Meter Diving Team," opens the collection:
Here's what it's like to bear up under the burden of so much guilt: everywhere you drag yourself you leave a trail.
Also from that collection:
This is the roof of the world. ("Ancestral Legacies")

Two and a half weeks after I was born, on July 9th, 1958, the plates that make up the Fairweather Range in the Alaskan panhandle apparently slipped twenty-one feet on either side of the Fairweather fault, the northern end of a major league instability that runs the length of North America. ("Pleasure Boating in Lituya Bay")
When Shepard spoke at Hillsdale, he read the opening few paragraphs of three or four of his short stories. Among other traits, Shepard is charmingly arrogant, and he was showing off his range. He is also a master of what Ron Hansen, also speaking at Hillsdale a year or so earlier, called "the thing and the other thing in American literature."