The perfect sentence

‘She caught me jacking off on uppers the night RFK got shot.’

While this may not be the perfect sentence, it’s certainly James Ellroy’s, encapsulating all of that writer’s thematic obsessions and stylistic tics – sex, death, drugs, fame and shame – in twelve words and 16 syllables. Just think how good he’d be at Twitter.

It appears in his latest book, ‘The Hilliker Curse’, a flawed but fascinating memoir, and it could stand for every other line written by this flawed but fascinating man.

And it got me thinking. Do other writers have a single sentence that can be used to blithely summarise their entire output?

Perhaps Orwell’s famous, ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen’ for the crisp prose and sense of the familiar, subtly wronged.

Or Wodehouse’s, ‘Ice formed on the butler’s upper slopes.’

Or Cormac McCarthy’s, from ‘Blood Meridian’, ‘They crossed before the sun and vanished one by one and reappeared again and they were black in the sun and they rode out of that vanished sea like burnt phantoms with the legs of the animals kicking up the spume that was not real and they were lost in the sun and lost in the lake and they shimmered and slurred together and separated again and they augmented by planes in lurid avatars and began to coalesce and there began to appear above them in the dawn-broached sky a hellish likeness of their ranks riding huge and inverted and the horses’ legs incredibly elongate trampling down the high thin cirrus and the howling antiwarriors pendant from their mounts immense and chimeric and the high wild cries carrying that flat and barren pan like the cries of souls broke through some misweave in the weft of things into the world below.’

Well, nobody said it had to be concise.

7 responses to “The perfect sentence

  1. How about this from George V Higgins. First line of his first novel – The Friends of Eddie Coyle.

    ‘Jackie Brown, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns.’

  2. The last line of Julie Burchill &Tony Parsons’s The Boy Looked At Johnny.

    “Compared to the Tom Robinson Band ,every rock musician is just wanking into the wind.”

  3. I’d like to make a very strong case for Henry James here.

  4. ‘We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped’ – from The Turn of the Screw

  5. ALSO, Martin Amis, love him or hate him, has a wonderful ear for a sentence. As does Jeanette Winterson.

  6. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Austen in a sentence.

  7. Good subject for a blogpost. Ellroy on Twitter I would happily pay for. Very behind on my Ellroy – still have to tackle ‘Blood’s a Rover’.

    Did get me thinking about one or two authors – arrived at Tom Robbins and, whilst he’s very quotable, I couldn’t find one particular nugget that really nailed him. The closest I could get was this from ‘Even Cowgirls Get the Blues’:

    “If civilization is ever going to be anything but a grandiose pratfall, anything more than a can of deodorizer in the shithouse of existence, the people are going to have to concern themselves with magic and poetry.”

    Not sure it sums him up, but it has made me dig out ‘Jitterbug Perfume’ again for another read, which is no bad thing.

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