Opening Sentence: Guess the Book . . . and More!

First, again, I’m just a little overwhelmed with things these days, so this blog hasn’t gotten the attention I’d like to give it. If I can work out some technical issues, I’ll be back with a wallop.

In the meantime, I’m rereading a book that begins with this sentence:

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.

Yes, eerie to find Paul Newman here so near the day of his passing. Is that a great opening sentence? Shrug, I don’t know. It’s certainly not bad. It doesn’t try to do too much, isn’t flashy, doesn’t attempt to foreshadow the action. But it does give us, I think, a strong introduction to a singular narrative voice. A voice that is sure of itself, and at the same time, idiosyncratic and surprising. An original voice. In that way, more than a voice, but the mind behind it. There’s freshness here. I’m willing to read about this character. So, come to think of it, heck yeah, that’s a great first sentence!

Do you recognize the book? I bet my friend, Nan Hoekstra, does.

* * * * *

I must be on a rereading kick these days, because I recently finished Frederick Exley’s dark drunken dyspeptic classic, A Fan’s Notes. (I’m of the opinion that if you read a book more than 20 years ago, it doesn’t count; it’s like you never read it, since “you” now have a vastly different perspective on things: the dynamic of the book-reader relationship has changed so much that it offers an entirely new experience.)

What incredible language from Exley, what astonishing sentences! I underlined full paragraphs, made stars and check marks on practically every page, scribbled notes in the margins, circled words, really marked it up. Time and again, he drove me to the dictionary: termagant, sibilant, galvanic, execrable, cachinnate, exiguous, exigent, asperity, apostrophized, piddle, and so on. Some of those words I sort of knew, but hadn’t fully absorbed into my own daily vocabulary. But there’s this: Sort-of-vaguely knowing a thing is a close cousin to Knowing Nothing at all, but even worse, since you’re tempted to pretend that you know something when, in fact, you haven’t the foggiest idea — or, strictly speaking, you DO have the foggiest idea!

As a professional writer, I don’t like to admit to not knowing words. That’s like a carpenter staring into a toolbox, not knowing what he’s looking at. What does this thing do? But it’s best, I guess, to admit what we don’t know and try to do something about it. Like Bob Dylan sang: “He not busy being born/Is busy dying.”

Also: I suppose I’m gearing up for something as a writer, by reading back-to-back-to-back first person narratives. I have an idea in mind — not for the book I’m doing, or even the one after that, but maybe for the one after that — where I’m about ready to attempt a first-person narrative. Of course, I’ve done it dozens of times with my Jigsaw Jones mystery series. But those books are young, and short, and don’t have the language and depth and dark I’d like to attempt. So reading these (and while I’m at it, I should reread, yet again, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye) inspires and instructs me for what I might attempt down the road. Writers learn by reading. Can you recommend other fine examples of first-person narratives? Anyone . . . anyone? . . . Doret . . . Liz . . . Bueller?

* * * * *

Lastly, I took a long drive to rainy Sunnyside on Sunday and listened to Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture on CD. I know it’s been a runaway best-seller and huge cultural phenomenon, and that I’m awfully late to the show, but I’m just saying: Wow. I had tears in my eyes for 135 miles, but not in a maudlin way. Highly recommended. Uplifting, wise, entertaining, awesome.


  1. Nan Hoekstra says:

    James — how often I think of you and almost write but don’t. So now my name appears and a challenge so here’s the second line “I was wishing I looked like Paul Newman-he looks tough and I don’t-but I guess my own looks aren’t so bad…” Aha! Thanks for the confidence and connection. Here’s a poem for you today, a favorite of mine. I am not sure if the comments field will keep it as it should be, we’ll see.

    The Way It Is

    There’s a thread you follow.
    It goes among things that change.
    But it doesn’t change.
    People wonder about what you are pursuing.
    You have to explain about the thread.
    But it is hard for others to see.
    While you hold it you can’t get lost.
    Tragedies happen; people get hurt
    or die; and you suffer and get old.
    Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
    You don’t ever let go of the thread.

    ~ William Stafford ~
    That’s a great first sentence “There’s a thread you follow…”
    I have a couple of other comments to make about some of the things you said in this post but let me come back in a while. Peace.

  2. jimmy says:

    I KNEW you’d know it, Nan. But thanks for not naming the book. Let’s see if anyone else can come up with the title. Nice poem. I’m always thrilled to see Comments. JP

  3. Nan Hoekstra says:

    Isn’t it a sweetness to find a comment? Yes, good books do astonish the very being of the reader! They challenge our perspectives and shake us. And bring us to the dictionary…your posts are so thought provoking–oh–and thanks for introducing me to Mary Gauthier!

  4. jimmy says:

    For the record, the book under discussion is THE OUTSIDERS by S.E. Hinton.

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