I have a theory that every book has at least one good paragraph. If it doesn’t, it’s not worth reading, and some books may have a handful of good paragraphs; some books or authors can have one or two good paragraphs on every page. (Kerouac is one such author, as I discovered when I read On the Road; he’s got a couple good paragraphs every time you turn a page.)
When I’m talking about good paragraphs, I mean paragraphs where the author broke through and achieved a higher level of clarity, exalted style, or smoothness of expression. Those are the paragraphs that seem to have a shaft of light falling on them and illuminating the page as you read. The author lifts his or her prose into the realm of poetry — about to take off and soar, but not quite there yet. The wheels are bumping on the ground and the wings are straining for lift, but there’s no soaring yet.
I remember one summer I read the Rabbit trilogy by John Updike. I was working in the warehouse of a giant mail-order school supply company, and in the breakroom they had a small bookcase full of paperbacks. You could browse through them, take one or two, and put others back in their place. I wandered through those shelves, and the Rabbit books, bound in one volume, was one of the things I came away with. One good paragraph. That’s all that was in that book, and the book must have been 500 or 600 pages. What a letdown. And that paragraph was nothing like the rest of the book. (Which is why it was good.) Updike is way overrated, if you ask me — but that’s a topic for another post.
The “one good paragraph” dictum applies not only to books that suck, but also to books that are pretty good. Take The Big Nowhere, by James Ellroy. One of my favorite authors, and the book itself is a good read. Ellroy knows the language and the zeitgeist of that time & place inside & out, and can evoke it as few others can. The level of sophistication he routinely writes at, in terms of the pull his writing has as well as his facility with ’50s-’60s slang and culture, is miles beyond a lot of other writers working the same territory. Yet in The Big Nowhere, there are two paragraphs where you can feel Ellroy gathering himself and reaching for the words to express why he wrote the novel in the first place — the original germ of the idea that set him on the course of working at this thing until finally he came up with The Big Nowhere.
Those two paragraphs are worth seeing on their own. Here they are:
Danny picked up a serrated-edge carving knife. He tested the heft, found it substantial and said goodbye to Mal and Jack and Doc. He apologized for the cars he stole and the guys he beat up who didn’t deserve it, who were just there when he wanted to hit something. He thought of his killer, thought that he murdered because someone made him what he himself was. He held the knife up and forgave him; he put the blade to his throat and slashed himself ear to ear, down to the windpipe in one clean stroke.
Then, later in the book, towards the end:
Coleman was fighting his urges inchoately, with music. He was working on a long solo piece filled with eerie silences to signify lies and duplicities. The riffs would spotlight the unique high sounds he got with his sax, loud at first, then getting softer, with long intervals of silence. The piece would end on a scale of diminishing notes, the unbroken quiet — which Coleman saw as being louder than any noise he could produce. He wanted to call his composition The Big Nowhere. Lesnick told him that if he got to a hospital, he would survive to perform it. The doctor saw Coleman faltering, clarity gaining. Then Coleman told him about Danny Upshaw.
Ellroy does a superlative job evoking what’s going on in the killer’s head — not just the content of his thoughts, but the way they filter through his mind, what he wants, what he’s trying to accomplish. Uncanny and fascinating. Ellroy can really get into a character’s head and turn them inside out — which also shows us something about ourselves. That’s the point of a good paragraph, from any book.