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Smokin'

Today my students will discuss a story by The Post's Henry Allen, an ode to the cigarette. Henry is a poet, a word that gets thrown out too liberally when discussing writers, but which is literally true in Henry's case (he's published poems in The New York Review of Books). Henry's literary gifts allow him to write about anything, no matter how mundane. A story about smoking cigarettes can be a glimpse of the Meaning of Life. Here's the top of the cigarette piece:

Best of all was the cigarette afterward.

You blew out the match with a thick, authoritative exhale. You lay back in
the dark, maybe put the ashtray on your belly, and smoked in silence so
profound that you could hear the tiny whistle and crack of the tobacco
burning. It was an offering. It was communion. It was said to be as
indispensable to lovemaking as the smashed bottle of champagne was to the
launching of an aircraft carrier.

"Ah," you said.

After a while, you might tell the old joke:

Do you smoke after sex?

I don't know, I never looked.

This was back before you quit smoking, or wanted to. Back when smoking was
like a haircut or a new pair of shoes -- it showed the world who you were,
or wanted to be. Back when it was an art you practiced in front of the
bathroom mirror when your parents were out for the evening, an art you
copied from the masters -- Bogart, Bacall, Edward R. Murrow, Franklin D.
Roosevelt with his cigarette holder pointing skyward at an angle always
described as "jaunty." -- Henry Allen

Last week we talked about Tom Wolfe and the opening of "The Right Stuff." Wolfe demonstrates an ability to change gears, to accelerate his prose, to floor it when necessary. The book opens with a set piece about the wives of test pilots who phone one another with the rumor that "something has happened out there." There's been a crash. Wolfe's prose shifts from second gear to third. You sense the horror building in these little houses amid the pines of the air base. The phone becomes an instrument of terror, but the worse thing of all would be to hear the doorbell:

"When the final news came, there would be a ring at the front door--a wife in this situation finds herself staring at the front door as if she no longer owns it or controls it--and outside the door would be a man . . . come to inform her that unfortunately something has happened out there, and her husband's body now lies incinerated in the swamps or the pines or the palmetto grass, 'burned beyond recognition,' which anyone who had been around an air base for very long (fortunately Jane had not) realized was quite an artful euphemism to describe a human body that now looked like an enormous fowl that has burned up in a stove, burned a blackish brown all over, greasy and blistered, fried, in a word, with not only the entire face and all the hair and the ears burned off, not to mention all the clothing, but also the hands and feet , with what remains of the arms and legs bent at the knees and elbows and burned into absolutely rigid angles, burned a greasy blackish brown like the bursting body itself, so that this husband, father, officer, gentleman, this ornamentum of some mother's eye, His Majesty the Baby of just twenty-odd years back, has been reduced to a charred hulk with wings and shanks sticking out of it."

There's more than a little touch of sadistic humor there, but from a technical standpoint it's a great example of fifth-gear writing. (Run-on sentences can be used to good effect.)

We're also going to talk about Hank Stuever, and the journalistic craft known as Stueverization.

By Joel Achenbach  |  April 15, 2005; 9:02 AM ET
 
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