Tuesday, November 12, 2013

"Call Me Fish Meal" -- A Famous First Line That Never Was

From the messy desk of Paul Levine...

I always wondered about Mark Twain’s opening line for "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn":

"You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,’ but that ain’t no matter."
Is it a great opener...or just a shameless attempt to sell the first book, too?

Well, ain’t no matter.   I just want to talk about opening lines again.

Perhaps the most quoted and most blatantly untrue opener in the history of great fiction is:

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." – "Anna Karenina" by Leo Tolstoy.

Sure, Leo, it has a great rhythm.  It just ain't true.

Some first lines are so compelling you MUST read on.

"They shoot the white girl first." - "Paradise" by Toni Morrison

Vladimir Nabokov wrote novels in Russian and English, which I find amazing.  (He also spoke French fluently).   It is hard to top the opener of "Lolita," which manages to be poetic, prophetic, and alliterative.

"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins."

Originally considered a scandalous, erotic novel when it was published in the 1950's, "Lolita" is now viewed as a tragicomic masterpiece of literary fiction, routinely showing up in the Top Ten lists of 20th century novels.  It is one of my favorite books.  (Note the understated cover on the first edition). 

Often, an opener is famous because what follows has become classic.   How else to explain the enormous respect given the concise beginning of Herman Melville’s otherwise ponderous "Moby-Dick?"

"Call me Ishmael."
That line came back to me about 16 years ago when a bunch of us were writing the serial novel, "Naked Came the Manatee," for charity.   (Yes, this Naked Author was involved in another "Naked" project.   Calling Dr. Freud!)

Dave Barry wrote the first chapter by creating an unusual Point-of-View character, a sentient manatee named "Booger."   Then the rest of us, including Carl Hiaasen, Elmore Leonard, Edna Buchanan, James W. Hall, Les Standiford, Vicki Hendricks, among others, each wrote a chapter, picking up where the earlier writer had left off.   Of course, no planning or coordination was involved.

I was tempted – sorely tempted – to begin Chapter 3 with Booger being chased by a shark, so that Booger’s first (or perhaps final) thought would be: "Call me fish meal."

Alas, I did not.  I will note, in passing, that seldom do "Naked Came the Manatee" and "Anna Karenina" get mentioned in the same article.

Maybe it’s because I practiced law for 17 years and have written courtroom novels for 25 years, but one of my all-time favorites is from William Gaddis’s satire of the legal profession, "A Frolic of His Own."

"Justice? You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law."
I think that ditty should replace the signs in all the Miami courtrooms: "We who labor here seek only truth."

I mean, really.  Which is more accurate?

Paul Levine


  1. Maybe that original cover for Lolita was the equivalent of the brown paper wrapper.

    I like this first line, too:

    "I turned the Chrysler onto the Florida turnpike with Rollo Kramer's headless body in the trunk, and all the time I'm thinking I should've put some plastic down." Gun Monkeys by Victor Gischler

    It's both funny and character revealing.

  2. Paul here: That's a great first line in crime fiction, Patty. No doubt about it.

  3. "We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped the girl off the bridge." - John D. MacDonald, DARKER THAN AMBER

    That was magical stuff to a 12 year old, trust me.

  4. Hey, William Simon. I love JDM. All the Travis books, and that's a GREAT opener. Paul Levine

  5. Mad Magazine already used "call me Fish meal" many years ago.