Nut Grafs: Michael Paterniti’s “The Long Fall of One-Eleven Heavy” (Foster)

One of the first pieces of advice you’ll hear about writing non-fiction (as the Poynter post says) is to give information to readers judiciously and to not give away the ending. That’s why nut grafs are so interesting and so challenging — you’re trying to tell what happens in the story without giving away the ending. What’s the best way to strike a balance and how should we differentiate between the two?

Esquire/GQ’s Michael Paterniti is my favorite magazine writer mainly because of a story he did in 2000 for Esquire: “The Long Fall of One-Eleven Heavy.” It’s a long story, but the first section is incredible in that it gives us a ton of information (what the town and its lighthouse look like, that it’s a fishing village, the image of a man hanging himself by the bridge dropped between a priest saying mass and wildflowers blooming in spring) but still not enough to make us stop reading. (Sorry for the long copy/paste.)

It was summer; it was winter. The village disappeared behind skeins of fog. Fishermen came and went in boats named Reverence, Granite Prince, Souwester. The ocean, which was green and wild, carried the boats out past Jackrock Bank toward Pearl Island and the open sea. In the village, on the last shelf of rock, stood a lighthouse, whitewashed and octagonal with a red turret. Its green light beamed over the green sea, and sometimes, in the thickest fog or heaviest storm, that was all the fishermen had of land, this green eye dimly flashing in the night, all they had of home and how to get there — that was the question. There were nights when that was the only question.

This northerly village, this place here of sixty people, the houses and fences and clotheslines, was set among solid rocks breaching from the earth. It was as if a pod of whales had surfaced just as the ocean turned to land and then a village was built on their granite backs. By the weathered fishing shacks were anchors rusted like claws and broken traps and hills of coiled line. Come spring, wildflowers appeared by the clapboard church. The priest said mass. A woman drew back a curtain. A man hanged himself by the bridge. Travelers passing through agreed it was the prettiest earthly spot, snapping pictures as if gripped by palsy, nearly slipping off the rocks into the frigid waves.

Late summer, a man and woman were making love in the eaves of a garishly painted house that looked out on the lighthouse — green light revolving, revolving — when a feeling suddenly passed into them, a feeling unrelated to their lovemaking, in direct physical opposition to it: an electrical charge so strong they could taste it, feel it, the hair standing on their arms, just as it does before lightning strikes. And the fishermen felt it, too, as they went to sea and returned, long ago resigned to the fact that you can do nothing to stop the ocean or the sky from what it will do. Now they too felt the shove and lock of some invisible metallic bit in their mouths. The feeling of being surrounded by towering waves.

Yes, something terrible was moving this way. There was a low ceiling of clouds, an intense, creeping darkness, that electrical taste. By the lighthouse, if you had been standing beneath the revolving green light on that early-September night, in that plague of clouds, you would have heard the horrible grinding sound of some wounded winged creature, listened to it trail out to sea as it came screeching down from the heavens, down through molecule and current, until everything went silent.

That is, the waves still crashed up against the granite rock, the green light creaked in its revolutions, a cat yowled somewhere near the church, but beyond, out at sea, there was silence. Seconds passed, disintegrating time…and then, suddenly, an explosion of seismic strength rocked the houses of Peggy’s Cove. One fisherman thought it was a bomb; another was certain the End had arrived. The lovers clasped tightly — their bodies turning as frigid as the ocean.

That’s how it began.

We now know that ‘some wounded winged creature’ had crashed down near here (and, if we’re reading in the magazine or even reading the sub-header, we know it’s an airplane) and that the crash was powerful enough to send seismic shockwaves for miles, to make people in this peaceful fishing village think the end was nigh. Again, Paterniti is a master of mixing concrete details (the description of exactly what the night was like, what it tasted like, the horrible grinding sound of the falling plane, etc) with ambiguity.

We know that “That’s how it began.” Paterniti doesn’t tell us exactly what it is, but he leads us along at his pace by giving out only what he wants readers to know, when he wants us to know it.



One comment

  1. namalidep

    Honestly, the first few paragraphs are almost too slow, I wanted to skip them. But I’ve actually clicked your link so I can read the whole story – which proves your point about the “That’s how it began”! Thanks 🙂

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