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A Life Devoted to Art and Literature

My retreat is over, and highly successful. To the question, "Why am I here?," the answer now appears so brightly it may as well be glowing in neon: To advance the cause of art and literature.

These are the things that separate us from the lower animals. The artist is our champion. No temple, no cathedral, no gleaming glass and steel tower is as wondrous as an immaculate line of poetry. I devote myself here and now to the efflorescence of the Word.

Also I must improve my sales. I need a bestseller. It is my time. I'm not sure what the topic will be but I know the violence will be gut-churning and the sex extremely depraved. The plot will appeal to that portion of the reader's brain that has an evolutionary history in the Mesozoic. It will put the reader in touch with the reader's Inner Reptile. I'm tired of being a worstseller author. See what a couple days off can do to a soul? Rested, and ready to rock! Everybody take cover, lock your doors, there's a new sheriff in town!

Speaking of literature, in my Georgetown class this week we are going to discuss "literary nonfiction" and perhaps these smart students will tell me what that means. The nonfiction part is easy, but "literary" is a loaded term. Maybe that means the author doesn't tell you right away what you're supposed to think. Makes you work for it. Or maybe it means the sentences are written kind of sideways and backwards and upside down. Palindromes are probably very literary. Alliteration is good, right? I think I'll assign the students an article in which every word has to begin with the same letter.

I do have a list of sentences and paragraphs I like, and I guess I'll post it here to the blog. We've talked about a few of them in class already. One minor flaw in the list is that some of the longer examples are from fiction. I'd be curious to see if any reader out there can identify the authors of more than half of these passages. If someone got them all right I'd be amazed.

Here goes:

Every woman stayed alone in her house in those days, like a coin in a safe.

One naturalist refused to kill a weasel who was socketed into his hand deeply as a rattlesnake. The man could in no way pry the tiny weasel off, and he had to walk half a mile to water, the weasel dangling from his palm, and soak him off like a stubborn label.

I sit on the downed tree and watch the black steers slip on the creek bottom. They are all bred beef: beef heart, beef hide, beef hocks. They're a human product like rayon. They're like a field of shoes. They have cast-iron shanks and tongues like foam insoles. You can't see through to their brains as you can with other animals; they have beef fat behind their eyes, beef stew.

Verifiable knowledge makes it way slowly, and only under cultivation, but fable has burrs and feet and claws and wings and an indestructible sheath like weed-seed, and can be carried almost anywhere and take root without benefit of soil or water.

Ravaged by pink eye, I lay for a week scarce caring whether I lived or died.

To make a long story short, I finally confronted my parents, who told me that they were only into themselves because they were afraid I might reject them if they loved me as intensely as they pretended to love themselves.

I walked through a vestibule that had a dirt floor, stepped up into a kitchen, and went on into another room that had several overstuffed chairs in it and a porcelain-topped table, where Fred Brown was seated, eating a pork chop.

Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bondman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.'

Bobby Edmonds was seldom hard to locate. His days had the regularity his habit dictated. They would begin and trail out in a heroin shooting gallery on Harlem's West 121st Street. The cops could count on finding him there when the time came for using him, and so could the Vigilantes when the time came for killing him.

Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.

He had a battered face that looked as if it had been hit by everything but the bucket of a dragline. It was scarred, flattened, thickened, checkered and welted. It was a face that had nothing to fear. Everything had been done to it that anybody could think of.

The moon came up nasty and full, a fat moist piece of decadent fruit.

I knew one 4th Division Lurp who took his pills by the fistful, downs from the left pocket of his tiger suit and ups from the right, one to cut the trail for him and the other to send him down it.

Already it was deep summer on roadhouse roofs and in front of wayside garages, where new red gas-pumps sat out in pools of light, and when I reached my estate at West Egg I ran the car under its shed and sat for a while on an abandoned grass roller in the yard. The wind had blown off, leaving a loud, bright night, with wings beating in the trees and a persistent organ sound as the full bellows of the earth blew the frogs full of life. The silhouette of a moving cat wavered across the moonlight, and turning my head to watch it, I saw that I was not alone --fifty feet away a figure had emerged from the shadow of my neighbor's mansion and was standing with his hands in his pockets regarding the silver pepper of the stars. Something in his leisurely movements and the secure position of his feet upon the lawn suggested that it was Mr. Gatsby himself, come out to determine what share was his of our local heavens.

This was the year he rode the subway to the ends of the city, two hundred miles of track. He liked to stand at the front of the first car, hands flat against the glass. The train smashed through the dark. People stood on local platforms staring nowhere, a look they'd been practicing for years. He kind of wondered, speeding past, who they really were. His body fluttered in the fastest stretches. They went so fast sometimes he thought they were on the edge of no-control. The noise was pitched to a level of pain he absorbed as a personal test. Another crazy-ass curve. There was so much iron in the sound of those curves he could almost taste it, like a toy you put in your mouth when you are little.

By Joel Achenbach  |  March 30, 2005; 7:36 AM ET
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