the vulture in the sky keeps on turning

I can’t quit the vulture, Harrison’s vulture, that is. The scavenger’s been on my mind. It’s an arresting image, to be sure. Fingered wings tilting against a blue sky. Descending on an aspiring corpse, prostrate in the desert. Not only is it a powerful image, it’s an effective opening to Revenge, a story that contains graphic scenes of violence, purely and objectively rendered. What’s more dispassionate than a vulture? Only a novelist like J. Harrison (or C. McCarthy) with a highly evolved featherless literary aesthetic can stick his face in gore and write soberly about it. “Cochran stooped as if to take the blow and brought the knife upward, holding the handle in both hands, ripping upward with all his strength starting at the huge man’s balls, upward to his sternum where he pivoted and swiped the knife across the man’s neck laying it open to the neckbone.” Later, Cochran recalls the peculiar sound of blade on bone and says of his act of vengeance, “I gutted the fucker like a big fat pig.” Surely there are other examples of opening images in novels that announce the author’s narrative technique and method. Is there a particular one that comes to mind? A favorite of yours?

Postscript. Is the musical influence of today’s title too obvious?

12 Responses to the vulture in the sky keeps on turning

  1. A cuttlefish is more dispassionate than a vulture. I am more dispassionate than a cuttlefish.

    Here is a favorite of mine in that last category:

    “The pale Usher–threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now. He was ever dusting his old lexicons and grammars, with a queer handkerchief, mockingly embellished with all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world. He loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality.”

    Might as well skip the rest of Moby-Dick – everything is right there at the beginning. Almost everything.

    The fog and Megalosaurus that begin Bleak House, that’s a famous one, too.

    • I love the cuttlefish, perhaps my favorite animal. Having read you for a couple of years now, I know you’re more passionate than a cuttlefish, more passionate than a vulture. I suppose I should have added that the vulture enjoys an incredible 360-degree view, regardless of passion, as he surveys the world below him, which then gets narrower and narrower, the closer he gets to the man with the purple nuts. A lot like a novelist.

      • I, like the vulture, am passionate about the especially fragrant and savory bits of literary carrion I find.

        Why do we think a vulture is especially dispassionate? Beaky Buzzard really wanted to eat that rabbit.

    • nicole says:

      Tom, you totally stole my answer. I always forget about the Bleak House beginning, as it’s been ages since I read it, but that’s a very good one too.

      How about Mardi, though? Just to change it up a little, without changing it up much at all:

      We are off! The courses and topsails are set: the coral-hung anchor swings from the bow: and together, the three royals are given to the breeze, that follows us out to see like the baying of a hound. Out spreads the canvas—alow, aloft—boom-stretched, on both sides, with many a stun’ sail; till like a hawk, with pinions poised, we shadow the sea with our sails, and reelingly cleave the brine.

      But whence, and whither wend ye, mariners?

      It even has a hawk!

  2. Richard says:

    You guys are killing me with all the violent bird talk this week, Kevin! Check out Scott’s review of J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine over at his Seraillon blog if you want more of the “highly-evolved” non-featherless “literary aesthetic.” In the meantime, I’m curious whether you’ll next become a “black belt” in Harrison in addition to your famous black belt in McCarthy. P.S. “Non-featherless” means “with feathers,” right? Ok, good, I’m glad we talked. :D

    • Hi Richard, it’s really good to see you. Silence is easily construed as departure. I’ve been meaning to add Seraillon to my blog roll. Done and doner. Harrison’s body of work is impressive. I’m surprised he isn’t reckoned an elite writer up there with other American heavyweights. The dude’s got talent. Again, great to see you.

  3. khalid mir says:

    Stoner: Quiet. Understated. The inner life.

  4. khalid mir says:

    Sorry about that, kevin. I thought that if I put a quote down you’d never look. :-)

  5. [...] may not reveal Harrison’s narrative technique, at least not to the degree the vulture does in Revenge, but it does communicate something of the flavor of the ideas Harrison explores in the story. [...]

  6. [...] Revenge, Brown Dog starts with a visually arresting [...]

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