We all should be Charles Baxter.
Openings always challenge most writers, seasoned and novice. However, Charles Baxter captures it with profound precision. He ensnares the reader with many strategies. The first strategy is the use of curiosity that focuses on the sense of smell. He attracts the reader with the wonder of what Detroit, Michigan, smells like. He forces the reader to linger in the first paragraph for the sole purpose of satisfying that curiosity. He releases the reader to move with radiant joy but with a backward glance. The reader accepts this release for the purpose of moving with reluctance to subsequent words so that he/she can discover much more.
Baxter employs, not just of the sense of smell, but he employs imagery in a no-holds-barred sense. The first paragraph is riddled with an imagistic vision. Each word draws the senses and packs a punch. To conjecture a smell that takes up residence in one’s head is pure animation. The reader envisions such a forceful incident and smells the acridity of the industrial “chuffing”. Another succinct imagery brings forward “knitted beret, and his dreadlocks flapping in the breeze” to cause the reader to concentrate on characterization without making it into an undue chore.
Baxter draws in the reader with the juxtaposition of the familiar and the unfamiliar. He compares Anders’ native Sweden with the unfamiliarity of Detroit. In the narrator’s homeland, that sort of smell (smoke from natural wood-burning) heralds the arrival of winter and calls forth all things natural. On the other hand, in Detroit, the only thing natural about the smell is that it permeates the city during summer when Anders arrives. The smell also arrives in the form of industrial pollution of a gigantic proportion; the acridity is artificial.
Another strategy that Baxter employs that entices the reader is the matter of coincidence. Baxter pits the protagonist’s arrival into the city with the coincidence of the opening of the novel: two entry points, one external (character arrives) and the other intrinsic/internal (the opening of the novel). Both showcase arrivals of a sort, a double entendre of a sort.
Baxter snags the reader from the onset and builds tension by stacking nuanced occurrences in incremental actions and with subtle interpretations between the cab driver and the Swede. Both of them are foreigners who are poured into the “melting pot” that is America, but each character attempts to understand the other. Failing to do so, each character must release the challenge and shrug it off, as Anders finally had to do when he perceived himself misunderstood.
By their nature, short stories are economists. They force writers to weigh every letter, every word, every phrase, and every sentence for the maximum impact. Baxter weighs the impact of each word before he lays it down like a bricklayer who stacks bricks and mortar with precision. Compliance with word count is the albatross any writer must get off his or her neck. Baxter has conquered that responsibility. “Better to start with a small mystery and build up to a bigger one. The truth about a situation is always big enough to sustain someone’s attention,” says Baxter.
In an interview that appeared in Medium, one of Random House’s many media outlets, Baxter admits to that technique of wanting to capture the reader from the onset. “I want to create a condition with an element of mystery in it. I set up a question that I and my readers want to have answered…You don’t have to set a Chevrolet on fire or have someone murdered on the first page to get the reader’s attention.”
Even when he uses the passive voice, he does not detract from the gripping effect of the opening scene. Rather, the passive voice adds poetry to the opening and lessens the accusatory nature rampant in the active voice. “What he first noticed about Detroit and therefore America was the smell,” very lyrical as opposed to “Detroit’s smell greeted him…” or “Detroit’s smell slapped him in the face…” Another passive voice uses two linking verbs (“seems” and “was”): “The smell seems to go through his nostrils…,” and, “But here it was midsummer…”
We all should be Charles Baxter when we craft our openers. If we cannot achieve that impossibility, we should study his style even as he himself studies Flannery O’Connor and other literary giants.
—–Frances Ohanenye lives in Houston and teaches composition at Houston Community College. She also teaches different literature courses, and one of them is through the Dual Credit Program at Mayde Creek High School.