The Red Pen of Doom embraces THE AX by Donald Westlake

the ax by donald westlake, the first page of novels

Listen: it’s hard to slog through the first page of a novel by Snooki, a literary zero.

And beating up the first page by a literary hero, F. Scott Fitzgerald, feels rebellious, as if I’m giving sending a chunk of English teachers and profs into therapy. Even so, it doesn’t feel good. Giants of literature need to remain giant and omnipotent in our minds, not bogged down with meandering prose that doesn’t go anywhere for a full page.

So as a palate cleanser, this week we’re dissecting page one of a brilliant, relatively obscure novel by Donald Westlake, a master of the craft.

THE AX by Donald Westlake

I’ve never actually killed anybody before, murdered another person, snuffed out another human being. In a way, oddly enough, I wish I could talk to my father about this, since he did have the experience, had what we in the corporate world call the background in that area of expertise, he having been an infantryman in the Second World War, having seen “action” in the final march across France into Germany in ’44—’45, having shot and certainly wounded and more than likely killed any number of men in dark gray wool, and having been quite calm about it all in retrospect. How do you know beforehand that you can do it? That’s the question.

Well, of course, I couldn’t ask my father that., discuss it with him, Not even if he were still alive, which he isn’t, the cigarettes and the lung cancer having caught up with him in his sixty-third year, putting him down as surely, if not as efficiently, as if he had been a distant enemy in dark gray wool.

NOTES FROM THE RED PEN OF DOOM

This is an intense thriller, with an everyman anti-hero who responds to getting laid off in an interesting way: taking out a fake job ad, then collecting those resumes and killing off the competition for his specialized trade (managing paper mills, if I remember right). It’s a short, intense, amazing book by a master of his craft.

So, I didn’t get itchy pencil on this page one, though there are some easy edits. The run-on sentences are clearly on purpose, a little conversational tic of the narrator. My personal feeling is they get just a bit annoying early on here. Pretty easy to kill a few words and make it more readable.

What’s truly great is how Westlake strikes at the heart of his anti-hero, and the novel, not just on the first page but in the very first line.

You rarely see that. Not in movies, not in books.

Westlake takes a carpenter’s hammer and smacks you in the nose with this first line and I could not love it more.

The whole novel is like that.

If you’re a fan of BREAKING BAD, this is a similar story with a different ending. It’s not a tragedy, with a hero falling, sinning and dying due to hubris. This is a story of a suburban schlub who suffers, sacrifices and does terrible things to provide for his family…and wins in the end. He gets the job. The house doesn’t go into foreclosure, his family isn’t on the street. He wins, not that Westlake is saying what his character did is right and good.

BOTTOM LINE

This is a great first page that doesn’t meander around, and a terrific way to put the reader into the essential question of the story, a neat twist on “What’s worth living for and what’s worth dying for?”

The Red Pen of Doom reluctantly nukes THE GREAT GATSBY

I take great pleasure in dissecting the first page of Popular Novels Which Actually Stink, or finding first pages that absolutely sing and figuring out why they’re so glorious.

The first page matters. A few examples:

The Red Pen of Doom puts a stake through TWILIGHT

The Red Pen of Doom impales FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

The Red Pen of Doom guts THE NOTEBOOK

The Red Pen of Doom murders THE FOUNTAINHEAD by Ayn Rand

By request, today we’re taking on page one of a classic of lit-RAH-sure: THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Sidenote: There are 5,832 various editions and such, so you’re page one may end on a different sentence and such. I tried to stop at the end of a paragraph, though as this is an older book, back when paragraphs lasted longer than most CBS sitcoms, this is kinda hard.

THE GREAT GATSBY

In my younger and more vulnerable years, (missing a comma here) my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

He didn’t say any more, (this feels like odd, unplanned repetition of the “any one” in the previous graf, so strike “any”) but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. (Listen, we’re on the third graf already, and I’m not inclined to reserve all judgment, seeing how you’re coming off like a veteran bore.) The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was became privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men. Most of the confidences were unsought — frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon.; for the intimate revelations (“intimate relations” twice in this sentence, so close together, doesn’t work at all) of young men, or at least The terms in which they express them, (comma deleted) are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions. Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, (here we get repetition with a purpose for once and it does work) a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth. (This is an awkward mouthful)

THOUGHTS: This is 100 percent interior monologue, which isn’t required by law to be boring. Though it sure leans that way.

Maybe it sets the mood.

However: If you’re basing a tragic hero’s entire motivation for making a ton of money to become a rich snob to impress a girl he loved and lost, and you’re hell-bent on starting page one with interior monologue about backstory, MAKE IT ABOUT THE GIRL.

Not the narrator. Not the narrator’s dad.

Not boring people who tell the narrator secrets while he pretends to sleep.

Make it all about the girl and Gatsby.

A huge part of the novel is throwing fancy parties to impress each other, right? I’m going off my memory from doing my own term papers on this thing. Never saw the movies. And when I do a first page, I try NOT to cheat by reading plot summaries and such, even if I’ve read the book.

Put a gun to my head and I’d delete this first page and start with the real inciting incident, which should be Gatsby and the narrator meeting the girl at a party way back when, so you can echo that later.

Or make it about about a small betrayal, from college or back during the war, to foreshadow the bigger betrayals and tragedies to come.

VERDICT: Doesn’t make me want to read more, which I wouldn’t unless the English 101 prof gave me no choice.

Sorry, F. Scott F.–can’t lie and say I liked this. Nuke the first page and go with a better hook.

The Red Pen of Doom destroys A SHORE THING by Snooki

Listen: the first page of a book shares something in common with the first moments of a song, the first five minutes of a movie, the first date, the first dance, the first steps of your first-born child.

It should be magic.

Raw and beautiful. Powerful and pure.

So on this silly blog, I pay particular attention to the first page of novels. Because you can bet Grandpa’s farm and every cow in sight that a brilliant page one foreshadows a good book, while a terrible collection of clichés and drivel on the first page will not suddenly improve by page 302 to make us laugh, cry and change our life forever.

The first page matters. Behold:

The Red Pen of Doom puts a stake through TWILIGHT

The Red Pen of Doom impales FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

The Red Pen of Doom guts THE NOTEBOOK

The Red Pen of Doom murders THE FOUNTAINHEAD by Ayn Rand

Today, we take on A SHORE THING, allegedly written by Snooki, though we all know she didn’t actually write it.

A professional ghostwriter did the boring “typing of words” part. Snooki did the hard work of cashing the check.

You will be shocked to learn her fellow castmates also got publishing deals, with Jwoww and The Situation also getting checks from publishers to put their infamous names on book-like substances.

Many trees gave their lives to give their words life.

I will pour one out for those trees tonight.

Here’s the text of page one, with edits and comments in red:

A SHORE THING

Life was hard. But a pouf? That should be easy. (Whoa, starting out a novel with a three-word cliché is a bold, bold move. Risky. And it doesn’t pay off here. Because anybody who says “life is hard” and follows that with an extended riff on the difficulties of Big Hair doesn’t actually have a hard life at all.)

Giovanna “Gia” Spumanti was a hair-raising pro. She’d been banging out poufs since age eleven, or as soon as her fingers were long enough to hold a bottle of Deluxe Aqua Net. (Maybe this is intentional, but the innuendo in the first two sentences of this graf is more juvenile than clever.) After ten years of trial and error to find the right combination of spray, twisting, and shine serum, Gia could add four inches to her overall height—which as five feet flat, she could use. Gia’s pouf defied the laws of gravity. It was her crowning glory. (“Crowning glory”–oh, how punny. Please riff on that more in the next sentence.) Although she’d love to wear an actual crown (here we go, as the prophecy foretold) of rhinestone tiara whenever she left the house, it just wasn’t practical. It could fly off on the dance floor and take out an eye. The pouf, however, wasn’t going anywhere (but up). (Wait: seriously? This is like one of those bad SNL skits with one joke they repeat for 10 minutes.)

Tonight, humidity was a bitch. Her thick black mane refused to cooperate. Gia brushed it out to start over—again—feeling discouraged. Her first night out in Seaside Heights, New Jersey, she wanted to present the best version of herself. Hundreds of guys would get a look at her, and she’d be searching among them for her near future fling(s). (I read a ton of fiction, and non-fiction, and this is the weirdest use of parantheticals I’ve seen in forever. Doesn’t work. Also, protags should be likable, and this graf of backstory just makes the reader see the protag as completely self-absorbed.) After the year she had back home in Brooklyn—landing and losing a couple of jobs and boyfriends—she deserved the sexiest summer ever.

Gia hoisted the front section of her hair, holding it high over her head with one hand.

COMMENTS

I binge-watched the first season of JERSEY SHORE while visiting my sister in H’wood, so I know enough to be dangerous about Snooki, The Situation and the entire sordid thing.

And no, this novel meant to be lit-RAH-sure.

However: Entertaining trash should still be entertaining, and well-done. This first page is neither.

In this sort of story, sure, you’re going to get a lot of interior monologue, including self-centered nonsense like this.

A full page about hair, though, is a bit much even if you put it in the middle of this kind of novel.

Dedicating the entire opening page to hair and backstory, plus backstory about the hair? My God. 

Here’s the lesson I take from this hot mess: life is hard, and what’s even harder is turning a reality show villain into a fictional hero.

Because that’s what the stars of JERSEY SHORE are: comic villains absolutely swimming in a sea of nasty hubris.

Every comedy targets an institution.

Your average sitcom pokes fun at families, marriage, kids and suburban life.

M*A*S*H* attacks the military and war.

FRIENDS put the bull’s eye on young singles.

The producers of JERSEY SHORE knew Snooki, The Situation and the rest of the gang were comic villains. They’re only fun to watch to see what kind of trouble happens, and every piece of trouble is far from random. Nobody gets hit by a bus while they’re using a crosswalk. Every episode is all about chaos and craziness that comes straight from the hubris of cast members.

Who will get drunk and start a bar fight?

Who’s so desperate tonight that they’ll hook up with anything and everything?

Which member of the cast is such a self-absorbed dipstick that they’ll get on the phone and try to order a pizza or a cab and give his last name as “Situation” and first name as “The”?

I haven’t read the rest of A SHORE THING and never will.

The feeling I get, though, is this is meant to be a comic romp, with the Snooki character, Gia, set up as the protag. That we’re supposed to laugh with her instead of laughing at her.

Sorry. Comedy doesn’t work like that.

VERDICT: Kill it with fire. Nuke it from orbit.