1.31.2016

Briefly Scrutinizing the First Sentence of It Happened in Boston? by Russell H. Greenan



How's this for an opening line:

"LATELY I have come to feel that the pigeons are spying on me."

That's the first sentence zinger from It Happened in Boston? (1968), the debut novel replete with astonishing zinger sentences from one of the most unjustly neglected* writers of the past fifty years, Russell H. Greenan.


Image of my first printing, 1968
Greenan's first published sentence in a book zings for many reasons; allow me to zero in, briefly, on a few.  First, the sentence serves as a microcosm, in thirteen lucky words, for the brilliant, intentionally unbalanced, balance of the 273 page novel.  If I explained in too much specific details what I meant by "microcosm" it just wouldn't match the captivating kookiness of Greenan's novel on the one hand, and its genre-bending erudition on the other, where the contemporary art world, world history, mystery, mythology, mysticism, and "fantasy" in the old-school, James Branch Cabell or Jorge Luis Borges sense of the word—the fantastic— intermingle in our narrator-artist's transformative "reveries" that propel him, within the span of minutes, to other planets, alternate realities, the Middle Ages, and back to antique galleries and public gardens (when he's not in some psychiatric ward) in the backstreets of a photographically rendered Boston as fully realized as Leopold Blooms' day in Dublin.

Secondly, notice that Greenan used the word "feel" instead of "think" or "believe" in the first sentence. Why "feel"?  Why not "perceive" or "observe" or "notice"? Probably because He, our oddball but genius narrator, is an artist.  That he is an artist is not a delusion.  Like many artists, he feels things deeply—more deeply than most.  He also sees things more deeply than most.  Things that ordinary souls would call delusions, hallucinations.  Not only are the pigeons spying on him (and later haranguing him), but he can travel through time, throughout the eons of recorded history and a myriad of cultures.

"One day I dined with Aristides or with Vespasian, the next I ate with the Yorubas or gnawed a reindeer bone in the Dordogne. In swift succession I looked upon the glory of Cyrus the Great, the savagery of Chaka, the courage of Cortez, the splendor of Sheng-tsu, the folly of Nero, the fury of Timour and the cunning of the Medici. I heard Mozart play and Dr. Johnson talk. . . ."

Clearly, our narrator is as erudite as he is nuts.  But, lest I stray further from the first sentence of It Happened in Boston?, let me say lastly that in its amazing microcosm of an even more amazing book, I'm reminded of what Lydia Davis accomplishes less effectively in her short short story-abstracts in which implications billow out from a brevity of words, and interpretations are trusted solely to the reader's knowledge and imagination.  Imagine an entire novel of first sentences like that, how artistically twisted (a compliment) that could become—sort of like the off-kilter visual of the apartment building on the front cover of the first edition's dust jacket—and that is, without question, the exciting experience of reading It Happened in Boston?

* Russell H. Greenan's most recent novel, his fourteenth, Nether Netherland, was published in England in 2014, when he was eighty-eight.  He's ninety now.  Visit him at his excellent website that chronicles the entirety of his unique career.

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