Exploring the art of prose


Favorite First Sentence: THAT NIGHT, Alice McDermott

Favorite First Sentence: That Night, Alice McDermott

That night when he came to claim her, he stood on the short lawn before her house, his knees bent, his fists driven into his thighs, and bellowed her name with such passion that even the friends who surrounded him, who had come to support him, to drag her from the house, to murder her family if they had to, let the chains they carried get limp in their hands.

That Night was only McDermott’s second novel, and it was a finalist for both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. The novel is slim, under 200 pages, and McDermott’s prose is tightly coiled. Modifying the “night” with the adjective “that,” and beginning the novel with those titular words, we are instantly pulled into a very specific moment in time.  The importance of this moment—why tell the story now—is made clear with the use of the word “that.”

The rest of the sentence unfurls in a series of clauses—eight commas in all—and it is in part in the way that the sentence unfurls that the tension begins to rise. Clearly, conflict and tension are built into this moment: a man is standing on a lawn, there to “claim her,” his friends are holding chains in their hands, ready to murder her family. But the sentence wouldn’t be nearly as fraught if the sentence construction didn’t mirror the tension.

That Night, Alice McDermott
Picador, 1987

by Laura Spence-Ash