SxS: A Sentence in Six Acts

by ALLAN REEDER


To consider how T.C. Boyle introduces person, place, and predicament in the opening sentence of his novel When the Killing’s Done, let’s go phrase by phrase: 

[1] Picture her there in the pinched little galley

No fooling around with exposition: we are prompted to see “her” immediately in this cramped space. And the use of a pronoun — instead of her name — brings us close, assuming our familiarity (the redundancy of “pinched” and “little,” establishing the colloquial voice,  contributes to the familiar feel). 

[2] where you could barely stand up without cracking your head,

And now we’re closer. Having been directly addressed (“you”), we, too, are hunched in the galley. What was “there” in the galley feels more like “here" in the galley.

[3] her right hand raw and stinging still from the scald of the coffee she’d dutifully — and foolishly — tried to make

Now that Boyle has us beside “her,” sharing the tight space, it’s time for empathizing, in a couple of ways: physically, in reaction to the pain of the “raw and stinging” burn, and emotionally, in consideration of the tension between a sense of duty and the questioning of it. At this point, we question as well: for whom did she perform — or try to perform — this duty? 

[4] so they could have something to keep them going,

The camera pans back in answer: “they” need her support, or at least that’s how she thinks. Notice that we’ve entered her thinking; we’re no longer just “picturing” her. Yes, we’re listening to the narrator still, of course, but “something to keep them going” is a phrase colloquial and vague enough that it could be hers, to herself (a moment of free indirect style). And with that phrase emerges a new question: “to keep them going” where? Doing what? Why? Boyle gestures to the larger story, outside this galley, and for a moment our attention is directed forward, is future-oriented.  

[5] a good sport, always a good sport,

Whose words are these? I receive them as the words of the crew (the absent “they”) as they sound inside “her” mind; the repetition in the phrasing is self-sustaining. Although the camera panned back a moment ago, we’re now zoomed-in, closer than we’ve ever been to her.

[6] though she’d woken up vomiting in her berth not half an hour ago.

To exit, we’ve returned to the omniscient narrator’s direction; the panning-back is retrospective, informing us of what went on before we ever tried to “picture her” — and what went on (“vomiting”) is a consequence of the greater situation on this boat.

All together now:

Picture her there in the pinched little galley where you could barely stand up without cracking your head, her right hand raw and stinging still from the scald of the coffee she’d dutifully — and foolishly — tried to make so they could have something to keep them going, a good sport, always a good sport, though she’d woken up vomiting in her berth not half an hour ago.

Mirroring her position inside the boat — “there in the pinched little galley” — her predicament is nested within a larger scenario, clearly a troubled one. Not a bad sentence to mimic, phrase by phrase, to launch story-making, or -finding.