Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Greatest First Lines of 20th Century Novels

 “A Screaming comes across the sky.” -Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)

The passengers disembarked and stood on the tarmac one by one looking out and seeing themselves in the darkness of the desert. Black figures casting long shadows in the blinding heat and swirling dust. Beside us, the Pakistani men wrapped turbans around scowls and threw luggage into a jeep bed that landed in cinders. They stopped to stare back, hollow eyes unblinking that wouldn’t look away until the man in uniform beat them with his cane.
 “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” -Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)

“That’s the Saudi way,” a voice yelled into my ear. “Only thing these half-wits understand is the heel of a boot.”
I kept watching. I’ve learned to never avert my eyes. They test you if you flinch.
“I’m Nelson,” the man’s words wilted languidly in the creamy air. “Saw you in the terminal, figured we were on the same flight. You one of them new Saudi Electric pups? I turned to see a white man sticking out his hand. He was wearing a white collared button up, brown slacks.  I nodded, motioned with my chin toward his ARAMCO patch in red letters.
“Yep.  We're the old dogs on the block."
We stood on the edge of the desert until the shuttle arrived and the doors swung open. Standing inside behind glass, I watched the Pakistani men load our bags under the single lamp until they disappeared in the great blackness of our trail.
 “It was love at first sight.” -Heller, Catch-22 (1961)

At the airport gate I was met by Hassan, the fixer. A tall, effeminate Syrian from Aleppo who escaped the Bashar al-Assad rebellion by leaving his family and driving a Honda Accord through Jordan overland into Saudi. He had no visa, would be imprisoned if he tried to exit, and so he made his money running interference and keeping palms greased. When I stepped through the security he was waiting in tight jeans, chain smoking and whispering into another man’s ear. They kissed twice on each cheek and touched foreheads before moving toward me.
“You Hartenstein?”
I nodded.
“You Jew?”
I stared back.
Hassan hit my shoulder. “I’m kidding. I don’t care what you are.” He loaded my bag into his trunk and told me to get in, “We’re going to see Martin.”
 “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs…” Plath, The Bell Jar (1963)

Driving away from the airport, I gained my first glimpses of Saudi Arabia. Barren. Stripped. The earth a burnt oven cake, browned as if the oil had bubbled to the surface and crystallized against the sand causing the landscape to tar. There was filth everywhere. Plastic bags. Bottles. Busted toilet seats. Wrecked cars. Abandoned buildings. Rubble. I stared straight ahead as Hassan wove and careened into oncoming traffic to pass a slow moving truck. I could feel him testing me silently. Men test each other with deeds and words so when he spoke I listened keenly.
“Many men die on this road.  If Allah wills it.”  He steered the wheel into oncoming traffic and yanked back as a car raced by, barely swiping us. “There are many bad drivers here in Saudi.”
“You’re one of them.”
Hassan hissed a laugh. His teeth were tarred like the wasted earth.
 “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap…” -Salinger, Catcher in the Rye (1951)

We came to the compound which was a group of small two story houses inside a square wall. In the center there was a main office, a meeting area, and a small mosque. Hassan parked and pulled the e-brake hard.
“This is it, Hartenstein.” He jerked out his thumb.  "Home sweet home."
Outside the air stifled in micro waves. No relief. It was as if shade were a frightened dog that whimpered home.
Hassan dropped my bag and slammed the trunk shut.
“Until we meet again, Jew.”
He walked toward the mosque and was met by a tall Saudi man in flowing white robe and long beard. The two men kissed on each cheek and joined hands as they went around the corner. I turned, lifted my bag, and headed toward the office. I knew Marin would be waiting inside.
 “It was a pleasure to burn.” -Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

Martin was my contact with the New Zealand company that hired me. A proxy, set up by the Saudis to recruit. A lifetime ago he was attaché to the ambassador of Egypt, a shrewd, calculating, square-jawed brick of a man, totally in control of his emotions. Never in my life have I met someone like him, at the two month mark, when all the teachers were revolting, screaming about back pay and exit visas and lost paperwork and the confiscating of passports, it was Martin who reduced the room to whispers. I learned to trust him because I had no other choice, but to tell him nothing, or it would be used toward my destruction. But as I soon discovered, he already knew me inside and out.
 “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” -Nabokov, Lolita (1955)

Inside the office there were cushioned sofas on hard white tiles. A potted fern drooped and swayed beside a dripping air-conditioner. Black wires hung from the ceiling and the windows were barred. Martin rose from behind a cluttered desk and shook my hand.
“Mr. Hartenstein, you’ve arrived. I trust your flight was as well as can be expected? Can I offer you some mint tea.”
I accepted and we sat.
 “It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen."  -Orwell, 1984  (1949)

The explanations began then. How the university buildings were still under construction, problems with contractors, visa difficulties with teachers arriving late. The Saudis had their own way of doing things. I would have to understand. I was expected to understand. There would be delays. Martin explained his hands were tied and that he was working around the clock.
He was smooth. Cool even. In that soft blowing frozen air in the middle of all that rubble and endless miles of nothingness, in the middle of the night, I could tell, this was how it was going to be.
 “Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.” -Faulkner, Sound and Fury (1929)

Afterwards we sat and sipped tea. Hassan arrived again carrying a little silver tray full of sugar treats and dates. Martin nibbled and passed. I waved Hassan off, told him to deliver my bag to my quarters.
Martin liked that. I could see as he nodded at Hassan to move.
“So, will any of this be in your next novel?”
I was a bit taken back. My first book was a complete labor of love. I don’t even attempt to market it.  How did he know?  Martin smiled wryly. “We had you fully vetted. A writer, eh?  Have you got the opening line yet? I would think once you’ve written that, it’s all down hill.”
I agreed. “You’d think, wouldn’t you?”
“Ever summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife…” -Ha Waiting (1999)

We left the office and moved into the small courtyard just as the evening call to prayer began. A low chanting, rhythmic moan carried by loudspeakers across the city. Soon as if on cue, house doors and small metal gates opened and the robed men appeared. Turbaned faces in parked cars turned off their engines and stepped outside. Black skinned workers squatting in the dust crushed out their cigarettes and approached. Hassan appeared with several other dark bearded men from all corners of the compound, sliding off their black sandals and stepping inside the mosque to moan and pray aloud, lifting their hands, covering their faces.
“We should move,” Martin suggested, “We’re not wanted here.”
We stepped backwards lightly, feet plodding in respect toward an open arched doorway to watch and stay hidden in the dark until the chanting stopped and the night sky over the desert was quiet again.

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