Punch Lines

A pretty popular literary conversation starter is the topic of great openers — even great opening lines. From “Call me Ishmael” to “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times”; from “They threw me off the hay truck about noon” to “He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad” or “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”; from Chaucer’s “Whan that Aprill…” to Douglas Fairbairn’s “This is what happened”, begininngs can resonate.

But today, I find myself thinking about endings — not even last lines per se, but conclusions that linger in my imagination, that make me shake my head like I’m clearing water from my eyes or shaking off a punch. I don’t want to uncork spoilers here, but I’ll toss a few books out, the endings of which have stuck in my head.

Jonathan Valin’s Second Chance was his antepenultimate Harry Stoner novel, with an ending that was dark enough to drive the author to write a much more lighthearted book afterwards. The first time I read it, I closed the book, sat there for a moment, and said, “Wow.” Definitely worth a read.

William Goldman is a favorite of mine, from Temple of Gold and Your Turn to Curtsy, My Turn to Bow to Magic and Silent Gondoliers (the latter of which is sitting on my office shelf as I type this). But his novel The Color of Light manages to end with what is probably Goldman’s favorite trick — in a way that doesn’t leave the reader thinking about how he’s seen the trick played before.  In particular, the last two paragraphs left me thinking, “I wish I had done that.”

And of course, there’s Nightmare Alley, the last line of which completes a ghastly circle of horror. But one that may even top Gresham is William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel, which I read for the first time in grad school in Kentucky. And that’s as good a book with which to stop as any.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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