Napalmby Alex Keegan
The Internet Writing Journal, June 2006
A set of car keys, fat as a grenade, is arching towards your eyeball. The tip of one key, v-shaped, will precisely pierce the dark core of your eye. You're not yet two years old but this won't protect you. You are not old enough to understand that these keys, thrown in anger, began their journey a year before you were born, that maybe, a psychiatrist will say, they began even further back when a mother left a father, or further back than this, when a mining foreman, bitter, too bad for drink, strapped his wayward son.A set of car keys is going to hit this child, this you know, square in the face. They will maim, they will scar, they will change a life. Note my last sentence, all those extra pauses, the extras "theys". I am holding the iron against the skin for a little longer. I am making sure you, the reader, is fully paying attention, that you are ready to feel the pain.
You don't yet know the word key, but you know car and you know picnic. This is where you are now, out in the soft English countryside, and the sun shines, and down there is a clear river and over there moo-cows, and you have a mummy and a daddy. One day you will marry a much older man, a man with a criminal record for violence, who shaves his head brutishly short, who has his country's emblem tattooed on his chest, but nothing, nothing of this exists yet, not even this next moment, the long seconds when you look into the air, to the brightness. It's blue, and the black bird fills your view and then something happens.There is plenty in this second paragraph, but in the story it is all sensitized, held aloft, waiting, aching, because a set of keys is in the air. This is something horrible.
The opening comes from my prize-winning story "Ballistics" and it's my first example of what I term "Napalm," the art of making sure the points you need to make stay with the reader long enough to begin to burn.
In the story the huge changes wrought by the man throwing the keys echo through every word of the story, and it was vitally important artistically that their weight, terror, poison, were held up in a place and in a manner that they could not be overlooked. I insisted on attention. I demanded a reaction, because the reaction is important to what takes place in the lives of the man and his daughter.
A simple technique in crime-writing is to invert the above principle. The author wants to put a clue right in front of the reader so he writes some simple description, the clutter in the room, on a table, the dust and so on. Now if the reader is led to believe the detective is searching, then the reader will search too. But if this is just some background, the reader relaxes, and there (if only you would notice) is the murder weapon, next to the tennis racquet, the pile of magazines, the two airline tickets.
Unfortunately, a common error in beginning writing is that the author is aware of how important a moment is in the story, but he maintains that steady pace (or worse, he accidentally speeds up -- a victim of his emotions) and the sticking moment, the moment when the reader must pause, gasp, swallow, is passed. If the reader notices, it's intellectually outside of the fictive dream and the deep weight, the deep pain is dissipated.
In my article " How To Open Without a Bang" I mentioned the opening to "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" by Ernest Hemingway.
It was now lunchtime and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining-tent pretending that nothing had happened.When we read openings, usually we pay a little more attention. In the article I argued that Hemingway was very brave here, that he chose to open in what looks a very low-key way, but is it low-key, or are we being sensitized? Are we being set-up for a burn?
"Will you have lime juice or lemon squash?" Macomber asked.
Prior to these events, Francis Macomber showed fear and ran from a lion. His wife, already a sullen, aggressive, bitchy spouse now despises him even more. We first get quite innocuous camp chatter, before reading that earlier Macomber had been carried from the edge of the camp in triumph on the arms and shoulders of the cook, the personal boys, the skinner, and the porters. Here's another pace, pacing, setting up passage. See how Hemingway does two things. He expands the moment. He could say it more quickly, but he wants you to take a long look at it.
A beginner might say it quicker, and think it's snappier, but the reader doesn't absorb it. But Hemingway wants us both to linger and absorb the specifics, because then he quietly adds: The gun-boys had taken no part in the demonstration.
Connections should be being made, implications drawn, yet we still don't know what happened! Here we have a dissonance being set up, a horrible tension, something that as yet doesn't make sense, but there's an ache there, a pressure.
When the native boys put him down at the door of his tent, he had shaken all their hands, received their congratulations, and then he had gone into the tent and sat down on the bed until his wife came in.Notice how despite being chaired in triumph, Macomber is flat, the language is flat. Hemingway is still building.
She did not speak to him when she came in and he left the tent at once to wash is face and hands in the portable wash-basin outside and go over to the dining-tent to sit in the comfortable canvas chair in the breeze and the shade.Without breaking down the whole story, (something every beginning writer would benefit from doing), the point here is that Hemingway could have given us Francis Macomber's cowardice the easy way, up front, full-on drama, but by coming at the story this way he increases the pressure brilliantly, while at the same time (Macomber's wife despises him as a man even more after the incident and openly sleeps with the white hunter to humiliate Macomber further) working on his central point which is the link between manliness in the face of death, and the respect it earns from men and from women, and of course, sex.
In my copy of this story the actual moment of Macomber's disgrace is a full fifteen pages into the story, but we build and build towards it, adding thoughts, seeing the effects, going on the hunt. It is by taking so long about it, allowing us (forcing us) to see everything it means beyond the mere incident that gives it all so much power. This is a master at work.
Now, having shown one side of the coin, having made sure we've really got it, sure we really feel the pain and the shame and that we really understand his point, now Hemingway takes us forward to Macomber's resurrection. But all the pre-amble (not a word wasted, not warm-up, but setting up) has made us emotionally ready and "experienced." When the second animal hunt begins we now are closer to the heart; we understand hunting and we know what Macomber is having to go through.
Hemingway has made us feel the heat, made it stick to us. He has not given the reader a chance to shake it off. The story sticks, it holds, it burns.
In the final pages, Macomber earns his spurs, redeems himself, discovers what it is to be fully a man, earns his wife's respect, then fear, before...I stop, just in case you haven't read it.
Very recently I wrote a very short short-story, just a small thing, a reaction to my article "The Disease of Competence". Here it is.
GhostingIt may be trivial, but note that there is no way even the sloppiest reader can miss the sentence about suicide. It is isolated in a paragraph by itself, surrounded by white space and follows three blocks of far-longer, less terse writing. The sentence insists, "LOOK!"
On the first of January, he put Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita under the left hand cover of his two-pages-a-day desk diary, to level the page for writing. On Friday the second he did the job with a pristine copy of Best American Short Stories 2002, and on Saturday (the third) it was a novel, David Llewellyn's How Green Was My Valley.
It was on the tenth that a writer friend wrote: Jack, I can't place it. It's the best thing I ever wrote and I still can't place it, yet I've made nearly three thousand pounds this past month writing stories about cats who won't chase mice because they don't like getting their fur dirty!
On the eleventh, a woman wrote to him, an email, did he really believe it was human to crush spirits with literary brutality? He wrote back to say it was OK to crush one if he helped twenty-one. Then, in a flash of anger he reminded her he was a writer, not a psychotherapist, not a counselor, no priest.
On the twelfth, he contemplated suicide.
Once he had had dreams, then one day he began to capture them. Sometimes, the dreams he could create were wrapped in dreams, but the people he sent his dreams were blind, and they sent them back.
Drunk, one night -- the bar stank of cheap weed -- someone said give them dreams on demand, give them the same dreams, rearrange the opening, change a few names; dreams are business.
The someone was the man who still couldn't place the best thing he had ever done. Now he ghosted for a fat American.
In Alice Munro's story "Differently" two married women know each other's secret lives and they share some time with their two husbands.
One evening Raymond had said to Ben and Georgia that it looked as if Maya wasn't going to be able to have any children. "We try our best," he said. "We use pillows and everything. But no luck." "Listen old man, you don't do it with pillows," Ben said boisterously. They were all a little drunk. "I thought you were an expert on all the apparatus, but I can see that you and I are going to have to have a little talk."Here, again, the point-on-a-line, emphasis, pause, resonate. In the story we know Georgia knows about Maya's abortion, but what is going on (the blindness and what may have happened is built up, isolated, highlighted).
Raymond was an obstetrician and gynaecologist.
By that time Georgia knew all about the abortion in Seattle, which had been set up by Maya's lover, Harvey. Harvey was also a doctor, a surgeon. The bleak apartment in the run-down building, the bad-tempered old woman who was knitting a sweater, the doctor arriving in his shirt-sleeves, carrying a brown-paper bag that Maya hysterically believed must contain the tools of his trade. In fact it contained his lunch -- an egg-and-onion sandwich. Maya had the smell of that in her face all the time he and Mme. Defarge were working her over.Alice Munro's napalm here is that brown-paper bag, the egg-and-onion-sandwich. We can't skim something like this. We are made to read, to pay attention, to allow the full impact of what is happening to hit home, stick and burn.
In Nathan Englander's brilliant "The Twenty-Seventh Man," we are in Stalin's Russia and twenty-six eminent writers are rounded up to be shot. With them is the unknown Pinchas, an unpublished loner who has lived above a bar, scribbling away. The story is brilliant and poignant, but again the stick-and-burn is at work, because while death looms for them all in the morning, Pinchas only wants to know about his story, does it have any worth, will these real writers afford him any respect?
Englander plays the story perfectly, poor Pinchas (amazing, isn't it that he gets us to think "Poor Pinchas" because he might not get feedback on his story when, hang-on a minute they are all about to be killed) and it's right at the end when he finally hears some things, at the literal death.
The way Englander lines up such great voices alongside Pinchas is beautiful, but again, the moments are held the ache will not go away, the skin begins to burn. And, when at the death, before the shots ring out:
"Did you like it?" Pinchas asked.The story could end there. It works. We ache some. Or the story could end with the shots ringing out. That would work, there would be closure.
"Very much," Zunswer said. "You're a talented boy."
But Englander hasn't burned through to the bone yet.
"Did you like it?" Pinchas asked.
"Very much," Zunswer said. "You're a talented boy."
Pinchas smiled again, then fell, his head landing on the stockingless calves of Zunser. One of his borrowed shoes flew forward, though his feet slid backward in the dirt. Bretsky fell atop the other two. He was shot five or six times, but being such a big man and such a strong man, he lived long enough to recognize the crack of the guns and know that he was dead.
British Crime and Literary Fiction Author Alex Keegan is publisher and editor of the British literary magazine, Seventh Quark. He is creator of the five Caz Flood novels: Cuckoo (Headline Books, St. Martin's Press), Vulture, Kingfisher, Razorbill (Headline Books) and A Wild Justice (Piatkus Books) which all feature feisty female private investigator Catherine "Caz" Flood. Cuckoo was published in the U.S. by St Martin's Press, and was nominated for an Anthony Award as best first novel. His prize-winning short stories have been featured in numerous publications including Mystery and Manners, BBC Radio 4, Blue Moon Review, Southern Ocean Review, and The Atlantic. He is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal. You may click here to see all of Alex Keegan's available books on Amazon.co.uk. He may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His blog can be found here.