Finkel’s First Paragraph

David Finkel’s book, The Good Soldiers, is getting amazing reviews.  How about this, from the estimable Daniel Okrent in Fortune Magazine:
The Good Soldiers coverLet me be direct. “The Good Soldiers” by David Finkel (Sarah Crichton Books/FSG) is the most honest, most painful, and most brilliantly rendered account of modern war I’ve ever read. I got no exercise at all the day I gulped down its 284 riveting pages.

I told David that was the kind of review writers construct in their imaginations before they drift off at night, on a par with the all time author’s wet dream:  “A heartbreaking work of staggering genius.”

But I’m not surprised. David has always been a brilliant writer, of the type who got deep down inside a story, digested it thoroughly, then spun it out with uncannily sure-footed grace. So spending two years in the most intense circumstance possible, in combat in Iraq, it stood to reason that what he came up with would be legendary.

That said, the greats always have to put their pants on one leg at a time. When Finkel finally sat down to write this, he had to choose a first word, a first sentence, and a first paragraph, just like everyone else. That first paragraph is reproduced below. Read it, then on the other side, let’s deconstruct it.

The first paragraph of The Good Soldiers:

His soldiers weren’t yet calling him the Lost Kauz behind his back, not when all of this began. The soldiers of his who would be injured were still perfectly healthy, and the soldiers of his who would die were still perfectly alive. A soldier who was a favorite of his, and who was often described as a younger version of him, hadn’t yet written of the war in a letter to a friend, “I’ve had enough of this bullshit.” Another soldier, one of his best, hadn’t yet written in the journal he kept hidden, “I’ve lost all hope. I feel the end is near for me, very, very near.” Another hadn’t yet gotten angry enough to shoot a thirsty dog that was lapping up a puddle of human blood. Another, who at the end of all this would become the battalion’s most decorated soldier, hadn’t yet started dreaming about the people he had killed and wondering if God was going to ask him about the two who had merely been climbing a ladder. Another hadn’t yet started seeing himself shooting a man in the head, and then seeing the little girl who had just watched him do it, every time he shut his eyes. For that matter, his own dreams hadn’t started yet, either, at least the ones that he would remember—the one in which his wife and friends were in a cemetery, surrounding a hole into which he was suddenly falling; or the one in which every thing around him was exploding and he was trying to fight back with no weapon and no ammunition other than a bucket of old bullets. Those dreams would be along soon enough,but in early April 2007, Ralph Kauzlarich, a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who had led a battalion of some eight hundred soldiers into Baghdad as part of George W. Bush’s surge, was still fi nding a reason every day to say, “It’s all good.”

Pretty amazing, right? So let’s imagine how he did it. First of all, Finkel has to deal with the fact that he has trunks, truck loads, ocean tankers full of material, so much of it unbelievably intense. At first it must have seemed to him like trying to pee the Amazon. Just too much stuff and too small an opening. So what did he do? He pulled back. He thought about his best character, Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich, who was a wonderful paradox in himself, perfectly emblematic of this war. He was the most positive individual imaginable cast into the most negative possible place. A man who could venture into Hell, which is where he was, and still say at the end of the day, “It’s all good.”

So that would be the arc of his first paragraph. But Finkel is too much of a craftsman to leave it there. In introducing the living paradox that is Ralph Kauzalarich, the Lost Kauz, Finkel would create an opportunity to blurb all that material backed up in the tanker, all the stuff that would take 284 pages to unpack, but could be suggested in a few well chosen glimpses. A man shooting a dog lapping a puddle of human blood, a hero terrorized by the impossible choices of war, a warrior knowing his doom lies like a yawning pit before him. From such a slender thread of sentences, Finkel produces a firehose of emotion, and promises that once you start his book, you’ll become as changed as the good soldiers it chronicles.

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