Saturday, July 15, 2017

Anatomy of a Paragraph: When the Sacred Ginmill Closes by Lawrence Block

Anyone who has talked to me about books and/or writing for more than ten minutes has probably heard me fawn over the crime writer Lawrence Block. I've read more books by Block than any other author. (It helps that his published novels run into three digits.) Though he's been named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America and won multiple awards in the field, I still think he's criminally (pun!) underrated. His sales, so far as I know, are quite good, but it's a crying shame that he doesn't regularly top the bestseller lists.

One of the things I like so much about Block's work is how deceptively simple it is. He is by no means a flashy writer. You don't pause in reading his work to marvel over his sentences. You don't set the book down to appreciate his intricate plots. As a writer, when you read his work, you think, "That doesn't look so hard; I could do that."

And then you try to and you realize just how difficult writing as "simply" as Lawrence Block really is.

Block reminds me of Count Basie's longtime guitar player Freddie Green. Green spent his entire career playing one-, two-, and three-note chords, in a swing quarter-note rhythm. Easy, right? Well, many is the jazz guitarist who has spent a lifetime trying to ape Green's style, only to fall short.

Or think of Sinatra. The dude makes singing those classic songs from the Great American Songbook look effortless. Yeah, well you just try sing that well and make it look so effortless.

That's what Lawrence Block's writing is like. He makes what is actually very hard look incredibly easy.

I was reminded of this fact when reading the sixth Matthew Scudder novel, When the Sacred Ginmill Closes. In the second chapter of the book, Scudder is taking the reader on a tour of the summer of 1975, when the novel is set, as well as through the New York neighborhood in which he lives. Scudder tells of the bars that he frequents, and then he narrates the following paragraph, which is what I wanted to talk about, to illustrate Block's deceptively simple style:

On the same block there were two French restaurants, one next to the other. One of them, Mont-St.-Michel, was always three-quarters empty. I took women there for dinner a few times over the years, and stopped in alone once in a while for a drink at the bar. The establishment next door had a good reputation and did a better business, but I don't think I ever set foot inside it.

Nothing special right? Dude is just talking about a couple restaurants. Who cares? Why is this even in the book? Shouldn't a good editor have told Block to cut this so that we could get on with the story?

Let's take a closer look, sentence by sentence. Because I think this paragraph is secretly brilliant. It gives us so much information in such an economic way.

Sentence one: On the same block there were two French restaurants, one next to the other.

First the obvious. Block (through Scudder) is telling us that this particular block in NYC features two French restaurants. Okay, got it. But notice how he places them "one next to the other." This tips us off to the fact that we are going to be comparing these two establishments side-by-side. They're positioned so that we can't help but think of one except in terms of the other. Maybe not the most revealing sentence of all time, but it's laying the groundwork for what is to come.

Sentence two: One of them, Mont-St.-Michel, was always three-quarters empty.

Now we're getting to the good stuff. We get the name of one restaurant, but not the other. Mont-St.-Michel is important in a way that Other-French-Restaurant isn't. It's in the second clause that we learn how. It is always three-quarters empty. Not a quarter empty. Not half empty. And certainly not a quarter full. The line is "always three-quarters empty." So Mont-St. Michel is a perpetual loser. They don't attract a crowd. They're a little rundown in the heels. It's not the sort of place you would take a date to impress her. Only . . .

Sentence three: I took women there for dinner a few times over the years, and stopped in alone once in a while for a drink at the bar.

. . . Matt Scudder does. In this sentence we tip to what Block is doing. He's using Mont-St.-Michel as a way to reveal Scudder's character. Notice Scudder doesn't take "dates" there. He doesn't take "girlfriends" or "partners" there. He takes "women" there. This is the most casual term Block could have used, the most distant way of describing these relationships. Because Matt Scudder (at this point in his life) isn't the sort of man who has romantic relationships. It also tells us what kinds of evenings out these were: he took the women to a nearly empty French restaurant. Now, perhaps Mont-St.-Michel is one of NYC's "best kept secrets." Only we know damn well it's not. Block doesn't mention the food. He doesn't mention the decor. He doesn't mention the atmosphere except to say that it's "three-quarters empty." Scudder may like the women he's taking out to dinner, but he's not out to impress them.

We also learn that he stops in from time to time to have a drink at the bar, alone. Now, if you've read the first chapter and a half that leads up to this paragraph (to say nothing of the five books in the series that come before), you'll know that Scudder is an alcoholic. But even separated out from context, we get a hint of that. Who but someone with a drinking problem is going to stop in at a deserted French restaurant to drink at the bar by himself?

Sentence four: The establishment next door had a good reputation and did a better business, but I don't think I ever set foot inside it.

Block could have stopped at sentence three and this would still be a paragraph worth talking about. But he doesn't, and it's this fourth sentence that elevates this passage from good to great. Scudder starts the paragraph setting up two French restaurants. He then gives us information on one but not other. He uses this first restaurant as a way to reveal Scudder's character. Now, in the fourth and final sentence, he addresses the second. And it is in this fourth sentence that our impression of Matt Scudder is cemented. He never gives a name to the second restaurant. It is "the establishment next door." He tells us that it "had a good reputation," implying that the first establishment does not, and that it "did a better business," implying that the food is better, the atmosphere is more lively, the service more genteel. And yet . . . he never "set foot inside it." Notice the total disdain in his tone. He doesn't just not eat there. Not "setting a foot inside" an establishment strongly implies a code of conduct on the part of the person whose foot isn't being set inside. Scudder won't go there, won't take dates there, purposely. It's not that Mont-St.-Michel is more conveniently located or that he likes it better. Scudder frequents it not in spite of but because it's rundown. He's attracted to the gutter. He refuses to go to the nicer restaurant that is right next door, because that is not who he is.

All of this from what seems like a throwaway paragraph about a couple of restaurants. One paragraph, four sentences, not even ostensibly about the protagonist of the book and yet the reader comes away from it knowing who Matt Scudder is down to the core.

Block's work is full of stuff like this. Simple, straight-forward prose that doesn't draw attention to itself but that conveys an incredible amount of information and emotion.

Block makes it look easy, but writing that simply takes a lot of hard work.