It’s so easy to stop reading a book. To find a first paragraph that commands one’s extended attention at once is rare. Even among books I adore, few hit their first few hundred words out of the park. Almost all of them need a grace period of two or three or twenty pages to hook you. Here’s a paragraph that I think is a great beginning of a book:
Nolan pulls into the parking garage, braced for the Rican attendant with the cojones big enough to make a point of wondering what this rusted hunk of Chevy pickup junk is doing in Jag-u-ar City. But the ticket-spitting machine doesn’t much care what Nolan’s driving. It lifts its arm, like a benediction, like the hand of God dividing the Red Sea. Nolan passes a dozen empty spots and drives up to the top level, where he turns in beside a dusty van that hasn’t been anywhere lately. He grabs his duffel bag, jumps out, inhales, filling his lungs with damp cement-y air. So far, so good, he likes the garage. He wishes he could stay here. He finds the stairwell where he would hide were he planning a mugging, corkscrews down five flights of stairs, and plunges into the honking inferno of midafternoon Times Square.
That’s the first paragraph of Francine Prose’s novel A Changed Man, about a neo-Nazi trying to reform. It tells you a good deal about Nolan while dispensing gemlike phrases like “honking inferno.” And it left me wanting to know much more about the reluctance for which the character “passes a dozen empty spots and drives up to the top level.” It roped me right in. That doesn’t mean the book as a whole will deliver–though based on my previous experience reading Francine Prose, I expect it will, and then some.
I’ve become such an admirer of Prose this year, beginning January 1 when I bought her most recent novel, Goldengrove, on the basis of the title’s allusion to the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem and D. G. Myers’s recommendation. In the spring I read The Blue Angel, about a creative writing teacher entangled with a student. And last month I picked up one of her young adult novels, After, out of curiosity (retrieving the link above, I saw that Myers recently posted a review of a new YA novel by Prose). I’m more comforted than cowed to see that twelve further Prose novels await me after I finish A Changed Man. The ones I’ve read so far are real tours de force.
(If you get a chance to see Prose read or speak, take advantage of it. She was here in March to read a new story and take questions about Goldengrove, and it was a riveting evening even for someone who isn’t generally a fan of readings. She’s formidably smart and says what she thinks–she was most interesting talking about subjects I didn’t agree with her about.)
Previous books whose first paragraphs I love include Elaine Dundy’s The Old Man and Me, now widely available, wonderfully.