This year, Bellingham’s contest was won Jacob Appel, who seems like a good guy and has won a gazillion other contests, so I started reading his story ("Bait and Switch") and, dang, Appel’s first paragraph was awesome:
Aunt Jill had been courting Mitch W. at the Citarella fish counter for eight relentless months, stockpiling our freezer with pompano filets and hand-sliced sable, when the giraffe painter swept her off her swollen feet. This happened the summer I turned fourteen, the year we lived opposite Grant's Tomb in a rent-stabilized railroad apartment strewn with half-depleted bottles of Xanax and Zoloft. I'd been looking forward to having free run of the place while my aunt played "den mother" at an upscale day camp-- to savoring lazy afternoons with Jeff Katz on what had once been Grandmother Edith's canopy bed-- but these plans collapsed one blustery June evening when Aunt Jill charged into the kitchen looking as though she might spontaneously hemorrhage from glee. She carried a paper shopping bag emblazoned with the distinctive Italian boot of Marconi's Bakeshop. A turquoise visitor's pin, hooked to the lapel of her raincoat, informed the world that she'd recently visited the Museum of Natural History. "Laurie Jean! We're celebrating!" she cried, setting an enormous strawberry cheesecake on the linoleum countertop and carving us each the tiniest sliver. "I've finally met the man I'm going to marry."
What I liked about the paragraph was how quickly it established the story’s characters, setting, and premise. Read it over again. It’s remarkably effective.
It was only later, when typing out that paragraph to a friend in an email, that I realized how heavily Appel relied on adjectives. Indeed, maybe he over-relied on them (swollen, blustery, enormous, railroad, half-depleted)-- is there a noun here that is unadorned?-- but on first read that paragraph sure worked for me.
And this made me wonder, really, about how prose works vs. how we’re taught prose works. For instance, we’ve all heard the caveats about adverbs, which are said to be a sure indicator of flabby writing. If you find the proper verb, the adverb is supposed to be unnecessary. I took my first writing workshop in the 1980s, when Raymond Carver minimalism was still in vogue. Somewhere along the way, I had come to believe that adjectives could be just as unnecessary as adverbs. But I have to admit that when I’m in reading mode, adverbs and adjectives rarely irk me.
Appel’s prose was just as richly layered throughout the story. One can see why his work so consistently rises to the top of consideration in magazine contests: it just seems so authoritative and true.