This is the second in my series of attempts to understand what makes the first lines of novels compelling. Post your own favorites!
Earlier, I wrote on Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel. Today:
In the spring of that year an epidemic of rabies broke out in Ether County, Georgia.–Paris Trout by Pete Dexter
I don’t remember as much about this novel as I should, but ever since I’ve remembered this stunning first line.
The heart-stopping word, obviously, is “rabies.”
What does “rabies” conjure? Easy: madness. And that’s “trouble” with a capital M. It’s a special kind of madness, a diseased madness. The diseased among us, against whom we must lock our doors. I find myself reminded of that scene in To Kill a Mockingbird, both the book and the movie, when Atticus shoots the mad dog. That’s another element of the word’s force: something benign that moves freely through our lives suddenly begins to foam at the mouth and attack. Its eyes go flat and malevolent as it staggers toward us. We lock the door, but we cluster behind it, meeting those blank eyes.
And not just an isolated dog in the street. Dozens of them. Epidemics get everyone. Us.
So this is going to be a book about madness. And men in the street with shotguns. In the hot sun. The hot, bright sun that goes with the word “rabies” itself is part of the horror. This madness does not have to creep about at night. It can get us, make us part of the horror, in the least moment of inattention. It can reel toward us right in the middle of hanging out the wash.
The sentence tells us it’s spring, true, not hot summer. But “spring” becomes an ironic juxtaposition. The gasping heat of that dog in the sun intrudes implacably. Right in the glorious springtime, when we’re out picking dandelions.
A smaller component for which my interpretation may be a stretch: the verb “broke out.” Its metaphorical weight is arguably several-fold. We “break out” in boils—a pestilential visitation with Biblical undertones. But also, something that “breaks out” has been among us all along, inadequately (it turns out) contained. It has let itself loose upon us. Get the shotgun.
In support of this reading of the verb “broke out,” I posit how different this line would have read had it stated, “The people of Ether County, Georgia, experienced an occurrence of rabies that spring.”
Similarly, “In the spring of that year,” two anapests, themselves have a Biblical rhythm. An “old” rhythm, potentially mythic. Not the way you write on Facebook. Somebody wants to take you to a strange land.
Finally, to me, the choice of “Ether County” for a location also opens up images of those dangerous creeping-madness streets. “Georgia,” of course, calls up “hot sun.” I have special associations with rural Georgia that may be my own: tall grass in vacant lots alongside dirt roads past ancient sagging barns where wasps hum. Not everyone will experience quite these same connotations. But “ether”: ether is what they use when they want to dim your mind. Do things to you. Ether is dizzy and queasy. Under its influence, you will lose your way.
So the book will take us to a strange land that is superficially familiar, but where things we thought we’d contained can come at us. Where we will wander out into sunlight only to find it full of dark things.
All in one sentence. Sixteen words. A whole book is set up.