the best opening line in cormac mccarthy

October 17, 2011

Cormac McCarthy isn’t everyone’s snort of nasty violent brackish hooch. He’s certainly mine, that’s for sure, for reasons metaphysical and difficult to state. One day when I reread The Crossing, and in particular its enigmatic, almost incoherent closing scenes, I’ll do my level best to state them, the reasons, that is. 

Until then, let’s trouble ourselves with the opening sentences of his novels, all 10 of them.

(1) “The tree was down and cut to lengths, the sections spread and jumbled over the grass” (The Orchard Keeper, 1965).

(2) “They crested out on the bluff in the late afternoon sun with their shadows long on the sawgrass and burnt sedge, moving single file and slowly high above the river and with something of its own implacability, pausing and grouping for a moment and going on again strung out in silhouette against the sun and then dropping under the crest of the hill into a fold of blue shadows with light touching them about the head in spurious sanctity until they had gone on for such a time as saw the sun down altogether and they moved in shadow altogether which suited them very well” (Outer Dark, 1968).

(3) “They came like a caravan of carnival folk up through the swales of broomstraw and across the hill in the morning sun, the truck rocking and pitching in the ruts and the musicians on chairs in the truckbed teetering and tuning their instruments, the fat man with guitar grinning and gesturing to others in a car behind and bending to give a note to the fiddler who turned a fiddlepeg and listened with a wrinkled face” (The Child of God, 1973).

(4) “Dear friend now in the dusty clockless hours of the town when the streets lie black and steaming in the wake of the watertrucks and now when the drunk and the homeless have washed up in the lee walls in alleys or abandoned lots and cats go forth high shouldered and lean in the grim perimeters about, now in these sootblacked brick or cobbled corridors where lightwire shadows make a gothic harp of cellar doors none shall walk save you” (Suttree, 1979).

(5) “See the child” (Blood Meridian, 1985).

(6) “The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door” (All the Pretty Horses, 1992).

(7) “When they came south out of Grant County Boyd was not much more than a baby and the newly formed country they’d named Hidalgo was itself little older than the child” (The Crossing, 1994).

(8) “They stood in the doorway and stomped the rain from their boots and swung their hats and wiped the water from their faces” (Cities of the Plain, 1998).

(9) “I sent one boy to the gaschamber at Huntsville” (No Country for Old Men, 2005).

(10) “When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him” (The Road, 2006).

Some quick observations before I prove by algebra that there’s only one “best” opening sentence in McCarthy. Our steely-eyed novelist is a softy for “they.” Four sentences start with this plural pronoun without an antecedent, i.e., (2), (3), (7), and (8). In a writer famed for minimalism, two sentences are completely italicized, i.e., (4) and (9). Three sentences suffer from an acute case of word retention, swelling to over a 100 words, in the case of (2). Lastly, the themes that dominate McCarthy’s work are everywhere on display: nature, poverty, evil, violence, and the gothic and grotesque. 

But enough with pleasantries.

If you mistakenly think (1) is the best sentence, you’re easily forgiven, what with its succintness and grammatical orderliness. It’s a nice sentence, granted, but nice doesn’t land you a second date — or so I’ve been told. 

(5) is an abortion of Melville’s miraculous first sentence. It’s passive and under-determined, woefully so. 

(10) has a nice lyrical quality, especially as it lilts at “in the dark” and rises at “and the cold of the night,” and the intimacy of sleeping by a child and the poignancy of touch is a powerful image. Overall it’s a good, strong sentence, but it lacks ambiguity, pressure, urgency, and pluck.

The second person point of view in (4) grates insincere with “Dear friend.” Not even “clockless hours,” which is an arresting combination of words, can correct course. After a good deal of verbosity, the sentence plunges off the road, fatally, right after “save you,” paradoxically enough. 

(6) exhibits an interesting doubling, i.e., the “candleflame and the image of the candleflame,” and “twisted and righted” is reminiscent of Wallace Steven’s “Turning in the wind, / Turning as the flames, / Turned in the fire,” etc., but the sentence runs headlong into “pierglass,” forcing most readers to the dictionary to learn that it’s a slender type of mirror placed between two windows.

Now I rather like the use of “one” over “a” in (9). Clearly this sentence is looking ahead of itself. Still, it’s largely undistinguished, just as (7) and (8) are undistinguished, too, although (8) does present a strong image with the active “stomped” and “swung.” 

(3) is very promising until you realize that its syntactical and compositional fraternal twin has all the advantages of prior birth.

That’s right, (2) is McCarthy’s best opening sentence. And it’s nowhere near my top five. It’s faults are glaring: “they” might refer to two people or seven — or more; conjunctions pile up with precious little rhythm, unlike the river above which “they” wend; and toward the end of the sentence, “altogether” occurs twice, adding a redundancy to an already long opening sentence.

Despite its faults, the line has several nice elements. “Sawgrass” and “burnt sedge,” for instance, orient us to a setting that is at once natural and unpleasant. Sawgrass might look pretty from a distance, but it’s a series of nasty paper cuts just waiting to happen. Now maybe I’m in a minority of one, but I can’t read “sun” and “shadows … moving single file and … high above” without thinking of Plato’s cave. A subtle note of the irreal is neatly established. In addition to its irreality, the passage is also invested with a gathering sense of evil and doom, from the “implacability” of the group “moving single file,” to the play of “light” and “shadow” anointing their heads with “spurious sanctity.” Given their implacability and the comfort and ease with which they traverse the valley of shadow and darkness, one has every reason to suspect the final score when the last page is turned.

Evil, 1 — goodness, 0.