“In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together. Every morning they would come out from the house where they lived and walk arm in arm down the street to work. The two friends were very different. The one who always steered the way was an obese and dreamy Greek. In the summer he would come out wearing a yellow or green polo shirt stuffed sloppily in his trousers and hanging loose behind. When it was colder he wore over this a shapeless gray sweater. His face was round and oily, with half-closed eyelids and lips that curved into a gentle, stupid smile. The other mute was tall. His eyes had a quick, intelligent expression. He was always immaculate and very soberly dressed.”
— The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers
Two mutes? You mean two people who can’t talk? Mute sounds old-fashioned and maybe even offensive. McCullers published her novel in 1940 when there was less awareness of such sensibilities. In modern medicine the inability to speak or use verbal language skills is called aphasia. Nonetheless, the town had two aphasics. In my entire life, I have never met an aphasic. And for a small town to have two aphasics would be very unusual.
McCullers continues in a Joe Friday kind of way. Just the facts, ma’am. No purple prose here. It’s so straightforward it almost seems like the start of a middle-schooler’s short story.
The two friends were very different.
First, we learn about the obese and dreamy Greek. He’s kind of a pitiful character. A little slovenly. Half-closed eyelids. Lips the curved into a gentle, stupid smile.
Wait a minute. Gentle, I can accept. A gentle giant with a kind smile. But no, McCullers throws one high and tight when we were expecting an off-speed breaking pitch. His smile was stupid. No way around this one. Stupid is offensive. I suspect that McCullers didn’t go around calling people stupid just because of how they looked. But she’s very much aware of human nature. She knows that her readers – meaning all of us – can’t help but to make these kinds of judgments, even if we are polite enough to keep it to ourselves. So when she says his smile was stupid, she knows we’ll get it. She doesn’t want us to like this guy.
The other guy is tall. Ok. He seems intelligent, just by the way he looks. Another unfair generalization that we make all the time.
He’s immaculate and soberly dressed. This tells us a lot. He may not have any control of his height or the way his face is structured, but he can sure control how he dresses. And he cares about his appearance. He’s not flashy or fashionable, just immaculate.
He’s friends with his opposite. Sure, the fact that they’re both mutes has something to do with their friendship, but you get the feeling that the tall guy has befriended the dreamy Greek because the dreamy Greek needs a friend. So we like this guy. All of this in the first paragraph.
Two mutes. Two friends. Always together. But very, very different.
Where is this going?
Very simple language. Very simple descriptions. And with that, an undercurrent of tension that compels the reader to turn the page.
Another strong beginning.