Category Archives: first sentences

Face-Off With Fitzgerald, Part I

Through the years, I’ve never had much time for reading, unless the material could provide me with useful information. That’s why I’ve got to thank Miss Hopkins for junior AP English, where I was forced to read literature. No, hers wasn’t the first English class I took. I should swap my words around a little: nobody forced me to read anything until Miss Hopkins’ class. Up until junior year, I skimmed fiction and read salient points about the books in Cliff’s Notes, then made certain to debate every salient point in class, much to the distress of my teachers. It wasn’t that I didn’t like to learn. I did. That was the point. It was all about efficiency, as well as winning arguments.

In order to win arguments, I cut through all the bullshit, rather than getting bogged down in evocative language. This may sound like a lot of hot gas to you, but I assure you I’m not proud of my shortcuts. I’m just very aware of my constant impatience that drives me to cut corners. Miss Hopkins would have none of it. The first time I tried to force her into a debate, she told me, That’s nice, Little Grasshopper, but if you want to have an intelligent discussion, you’ll need to read the source text.

First of all, nobody calls me pet names, not even my mom. My wife can get away with it these days. Back in high school, where wife and I met, she didn’t dare initiate conversation with me, let alone call me names. After that bout of unexpected condescension from a priggish spinster [for all to witness, including future wife], I spent the night reading the assigned book, The Great Gatsby. I don’t think I impressed Miss Hopkins with my assessment of the text. Look, I’m sorry, but Fitzgerald was just wrong. Nobody needs to go back to the quiet life because the American Dream is dead. The quiet life, as evidenced by so many, IS the American Dream. That’s what it’s about. That kind of peace gives sons the impetus to leave the quiet life and create and build new lives, if not worlds, which then leads their grandchildren or great grandchildren to seek out the peaceful life once again. It’s all one grand cycle that some would seek to disrupt.

Carraway—or Fitzgerald—you were definitely wrong. For that reason, I’ve read your story about ten times now and still own my original dogeared, marked-up copy. Your story begins this way:

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

My own story begins about the same way, just nix the word vulnerable.

In my younger [redacted] years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. We were outside, still wearing paint-smeared garb, relaxing in the shade of his cleanly painted carpentry shed. The shed was where the two of us would go to escape my mom and the assorted small ones known to me as siblings or half-siblings. None of us really knew. Well, we could guess by the looks which lover had fathered whom. But that was about it.

My dad rolled up a joint like the artist he was and lit it. Despite his generous nature, he didn’t pass it to me. On my sixteenth birthday, he’d passed it to me for the first time, and I’d hated the passive sensations it induced so much that I’d never accepted it again. I had no regrets over trying it. It made me understand why my dad needed it. He leaned his head against the now dry, blue paint coat I’d helped him slap on the shed.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world aren’t as strong as you. As soon as you begin to criticize others, you will discover you aren’t the strongest man around, and you’ll get the crap be at out of you.”

“Not a problem. You’re the one who raised me as a pacifist. I don’t get in fights.”

He chuckled with his dry, smoky breath. “Don’t lie to yourself. You aren’t a pacifist. I, personally, can’t wait for the day you realize that.”

I suppressed a laugh. My dad didn’t need to know the truth. I’d discovered a long time ago I wasn’t like he was and wouldn’t work his organic vegetable patch or milk his goats to make organic feta forever; I wouldn’t go to anti-Bush/anti-war/end-the-embargo/Greenpeace marches without his prodding, even though I’d done it without complaint to stay the hell away from my mom and her kids.

Instead, I smiled like the cat who all but disappears except for his grin. I knew I wasn’t a pacifist, but I also knew I didn’t need to fight to have my own way in the world. That’s the way it was, and it might have continued that way for all time.

That’s the start to my story: just like Nick Carraway, with lessons to learn. There the similarity ends. My advice came direct from my pothead dad, who lives the quiet idealized life his generation longed for. He doesn’t have to wear the Che shirts his friends wear. Nope, not when he can maintain control over his existence with no pretenses. See, he wasn’t and isn’t a pacifist, either.

Sometimes, appearances can be deceiving. What are appearances for?

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Do You Have Any Favorite First Sentences? Send Them My Way in the Comments!

In my attempt to improve the first few pages of one novel, today, I had a fun foray with first sentences.  Instead of tearing my hair out and screaming madly because first sentences and pages are so difficult, I looked through numerous books on my shelves and read their first sentences.  I was shocked at how many books, both old and new, begin with the weather.  None of them were bad, mind you, but they weren’t particularly compelling, either.  Here is the one I thought was best (by a modern author):  “Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu” (Waiting, by Ha Jin).  The book, itself, depressed the heck out of me when I read it, but the first sentence is perfect because it sets the tone and subject and characters and creates a conundrum. 

Jane Austen, of course, always wrote hooks into her first sentences or first pages; she may have been the first master of the hook, so I have to mention her in this discussion.  And then I have to giggle at one of my favorite authors, John Mortimer, because the first sentence in my Rumpole Omnibus is an entire paragraph long–and I’m talking about an old-fashioned length paragraph that is dense with words.  Oh, my, what splendid clauses Mortimer is capable of.  Hats off to the man who created Rumpole and She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed!      

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