Starting in January, 2011 "First Page" will be a regular column feature in The Writer Magazine. Look for it!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Mean December Wind

The opening sentence of this first page puts us in capable hands:

"They came to us with the mean December wind, three cars in all." The cunning juxtaposition of a personified wind (picture a cartoon character with furrowed brow, puffy ruddy cheeks, quivering jowls) with those three matter-of-fact cars, is unsettling, as it's meant to be. It thrusts us into the psyche of the narrator, a child whose home on Christmas Eve receives an uninvited visitor—not by Santa with his brimming sleigh of gifts, but the grim reaper who comes for his mother.

Several things account for the effectiveness of this opening. For one, it appeals immediately and thoroughly to the senses. First, we have that "mean" wind; we don't need to be told that it's cold, or harsh, that it lashes cheeks and draws tears. Next, we are treated to the ominous rumbles of those approaching cars, "their exhausts reverberating off mounds of snow, then the moaning of their engines." Note the choice of words: "muffled rumble," "moaning"—sounds that connote the mother's dying breaths and moans of agony during her death throes. Drawn by the "moaning" of those engines, the narrator rushes into the living room where he "[pulls] the drapery back." I can feel those heavy drapes parting under the influence of small hands as the boy "[presses his] nose to the pane." What the narrator sees through that icy pane is no longer the benign world known to him the day before, but a world transformed by death.

According to the boy's father, the cars hold "relatives coming to pay their respects." And though the boy may not say so, or even know it, we feel that for him those three cars with their ominous rumblings stand for death itself.

Is it a stretch to assume that the breath with which he fogs the glass is as fleeting as the oval of fog itself? And that the dust he tastes on his lips is the dust from which we're all born, and to which death will return us all—and sooner than any of us care to think? I think not.

The narrative's retrospective approach is likewise well-handled. The story is set in the now fairly distant past—1956—long before many if not most of today's readers were born. And yet it opens with a sensual immediacy that brings the past into the present, that makes it as real to us as our own breaths and sensations. By the time we learn that "It was the day after Christmas, 1956," we are already there, inhabiting that past as though it were ours.

And that's crucial, since, whether or nor we admit it, ultimately the only stories that matter are those we inhabit personally, not just with our minds, but with our senses. The fiction writer's job (or that of any storyteller, where the stories are real or imagined) isn't to report experience, but to create it. And experience is processed in the mind by way of the senses.

Here, the author skillfully tucks exposition into narrative: "Watching the cars approach I wondered . . ." Though background information if supplied ("It was the day after Christmas, 1956 . . ."), we are never once lifted out of the scene, out of the psyche of the boy whose nose is pressed to the cold window as he peers out at those arriving cars. Like a sponge, the vividly rendered moment soaks up all background exposition introduced into it. We are never once removed from the scene, or from the psyche of the boy whose experience we share.

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