Wednesday, October 17, 2007

New Beginning 388

One of the first things Alexei noticed upon arriving in America--aside from how unbelievably fat the people were--was that random men on the street were staring at his crotch. The first few times it happened, he instinctively checked his fly to see if it was open, but it never was. These men, Alexei realized, were homosexuals.

“Brooklyn is full of queers,” Alexei said in Russian to his neighbor Natasha, who had lived in the U.S. for ten years and understood Americans, to the extent that they could be understood.

“Moscow was too, they were just hidden there. What brings this up?”

He explained about the crotch-staring.

She studied him, and a smile slowly spread across her face. “It’s your jeans.”

“But I’ve had these for years. They’re perfectly normal.”

“Straight men here don’t wear such tight jeans. Alexei, my boy, the Americans think you’re gay.”

"They would stereotype me that way?" Alexei's mouth dropped open in horror. "What judgmental people these fat American queers are."

Natasha nodded. "You get used to it."

"Is there anything else I should know?"

"Well. Their sour cream comes in plastic tubs from grocery stores. They mix their vodka with cranberries or orange juice." She sighed. "And when they hear your accent, for some reason most of them will ask you to say the words 'nuclear wessels.'"



Opening: Lightsmith.....Continuation: Lynn

53 comments:

Evil Editor said...

This is entertaining.

Alexei is wearing jeans that are tighter than those worn by straight guys. Random guys are staring at his crotch. Are the guys doing the staring likely to be be gay? If so, Alexei was right in the first place: the guys staring at his crotch are gay. So the point is...? Not that Alexei has misread what he's seen, and not that Americans are gay or stereotypers, but that . . . Alexei's pants are too tight.

Dave F. said...

Mariss Jansons, who conducted the Pittsburgh Symphony from 97 to 04, was born in Latvia, spke Russian. Once during an interview in Heinz Hall, he asked that no one else ask him so say "moose and squirrel" because he couldn't figure out what was so funny when he said it.
Go listen to Rocky and Bullwinkle and when Boris Bentenov says "Moose and Squirrel" you'll get the idea. Maestro Jansons called it an old, cold war joke and since he wasn't Russian, he didn't get the joke.

We also don't get the opening. Alexei likes to show off his manhood by wearing tight jeans. I mean men do this obsessing about women's tits but only really, really obsessively gay closet cases who live with mumsie and haven't had sex in twenty years (except with the Palm brothers) - only thos men stare at other men's crotches like in this opening.

Oh, and Larry Craig does too. (Sorry, cheap shot, couldn't resist, couldn't resist)...

But, Alexei, who isn't gay still wears those tight jeans that show off his cute and adorable buns and manly bulge. Also everyone knows he isn't Jewish. And they also know he has a mole.

Is he a fish out of water?

Oh wait, if he was Italian I would say he's a peperroni out of a pizza (and stuffed in his pants). Or if he was a Brit, I would say his banger was mashed up against his fabrics.
If he was french, well rosemary, grapes and a croissant come to mind.

I'm hungry for a pastry. What does Alexei do next?
(you ready for the payoff)
Inquiring minds want to know the whole dirty story.

Chumplet said...

I like the delivery. It reminds me of the Steve Martin and Dan Ackroyd characters -- the 'Wild and Crazy Guys."

As I recall, their pants were too tight, too.

Anonymous said...

The opening is good. I'd definitely keep reading.

The continuation is hysterical.

Good job, writers.

pacatrue said...

Great continuation, Lyn! I'll be doing Checkov imitations all day now, mostly meaning I will be saying the words, "nuclear wessels."

Church Lady said...

continuation was funny.

The tone in the last sentence of 1st para (homosexuals) doesn't match the tone in the next para (queers). In the first, it's more an observation. The second is more of a judgment.

I'm not fond of this as an opening to a novel.
Okay, I really didn't like this (sorry).
--If you want to establish that an MC is an immigrant, can you throw in a few native-language words? Instead of "fat Americans," how about "Bolshoy Amrikyans?" (you better verify that Russian bit)
--Wouldn't the MC notice others aren't wearing tight jeans? I think people tend to be hyper-observant when they're in another country. It wouldn't take a few times wondering why people are staring.
--And I thought the talk about homosexuals was a cheap tactic to grab attention for the opening.

This is Church Lady's harshest critique.

I know you can do better, that's why I thrash thee writing.

ME said...

Guys (non-gays) used to wear really tight jeans in the seventies. Well, maybe they were on the verge, how would I know? Anyhow, I thought this was kinda funny, I under where you are going with this. . .

What a wonderful continuation. So enjoyable that i actually spelled out continuation!

PS where do Russians get their sour cream from?

warm and woozy, indeed (word veri)

Lynn said...

I'll tell you what stuck out for me most, and it was one word - Brooklyn.

This guy's in the middle of New York and he's talking about Americans as one collective group. He's in the most multi-cultural city around, no doubt surrounded by every color and language and culture imaginable, and he's talking about Americans as if he's in White Bread, Iowa, and every person he sees acts and looks the same.

Other than that, I can't figure out quite what point this opening is trying to make, but I'd be willing to go along further until I found out. :-)

BuffySquirrel said...

Thrash thy writing, maybe.

This is kinda fun. I'd read more.

Anonymous said...

I think I like the fish out of water premise, based on my asumption of where this could go. I think the first paragraph feels forced and unnatural, a form of throat clearing. The passage picks up when the dialogue kicks in. It's the first paragraph that makes it feel cheap, and I don't believe the set up, as others have said.

Lose the first paragraph. You can have Alexei just say "men on the street keep staring at my package," or something. That solves the telling instead of showing as well.

I don't think Alexei needs to say "They're perfectly normal." It doesn't sound right for the character, and I don't think it really needs to be said. "But I've had them for years," is sufficient - in my opinion.

A little work and this'll be as tight as Alexei's Levis.

freddie said...

The Americans are fat. Wouldn't their pants be tight, too?

Xiexie said...

Good beginning. I'd read more.
Freddie:
Just because they're fat doesn't mean their clothes would be tight.

Robin S. said...

So, Alexei is wearing out-of-style, too-tight jeans and his (my happy guess is small and uninviting) bulge is showing -and kind of scrunched over to one side of his crotch, on one side of his zipper seam. The way cool guys wore them in the 70s. Oh.

And he's a classic boob, and so, as classic boobs so often do, he wants to figure our how to pin the cause on other people for his shortcomings (fashion or otherwise) - the shortcomings that, because he's such a boob, he's unaware of. Oh.

As long as somebody shows me really quickly that Alexei is gonna figure out, or have it figured out for him that he is, in fact, a boob, I'm not nuts about this. It would depend on where it's going.

It's like the continuation 'says'-
the guy is judgmental, so I'm only gonna like this if he has trouble coming from his attitude.

The writing is pretty good - but I was pissed off with the fat people phrase. This may have colored my objectivity when reading the rest. And maybe I was supposed to be pissed off - if so, it worked.

Dave F. said...

PS where do Russians get their sour cream from?

I think the process is (1) milk cow into appropriate container, (2) separate milk from cream, (3) set cream aside and when it goes sour, (4) you have sour cream.

BuffySquirrel said...

I don't think it needs to lose the whole of the first paragraph. The last line of it, certainly. Then it would read:

"One of the first things Alexei noticed upon arriving in America--aside from how unbelievably fat the people were--was that random men on the street were staring at his crotch. The first few times it happened, he instinctively checked his fly to see if it was open, but it never was.

“Brooklyn is full of queers,” Alexei said...."

Makes for a cleaner segue, imho.

Lightsmith said...

Wow, the reactions to this are all over the map. That's interesting...

I wrote this as an exercise in opening-writing. Nothing exists past what's written here. If expanded, it would probably be a short story, though, and not a novel. However, I probably won't pursue it.

EE, what I was trying to show was that the random men on the street are gay, as Alexei suspects, and that his non-American fashion sense has unintentionally set off their gaydar, giving them "permission" to cruise him. Also, I'm glad you found it entertaining, because being entertaining was my primary objective.

Lynn, you make a good comment regarding the Brooklyn setting. I only chose Brooklyn because many Russians have historically moved there. This would probably work better set in Chicago.

Church Lady, I specifically chose not to throw in any Russian words (or worse, to write it in dialect, e.g. "nuclear wessels") because it seemed more natural that he would speak to his neighbor in their native tongue, and for me to only translate parts of what they say into English and leave other parts in Russian would be artifical. I chose to have them speaking in perfect English because it's a translation of their perfect Russian. If I continued this, in later scenes, where Alexei would be speaking in English, I would probably have him leave out his articles as a way of portraying his accent. (On a side note, I used to tutor a Russian guy in English, and he had an extremely difficult time knowing when to use articles. The rules for this, as I discovered, are suprisingly complex. When you are a native speaker you use articles almost instinctively.)

Robin, it pisses you off when someone observes that Americans are fat? Does it also piss you off when people observe that the surface of the sun is hot? ;-)

Thanks for the comments, everybody. I loved the continuation, btw.

Robin S. said...

lightsmith,

The sun being hot is a fact. Earth only has one sun. And it's hot.

Americans being fat is a generalization. Yep, there are a lot of 'em, but not ALL of 'em are fat. I'm not, and neither are my willowy (5'9, size 2) daughters.

They both model as a pastime, they both dye their hair, and yet, they both have high IQs. How about that. Yet another generalization, all fucked up.

My opinion on what you wrote was just that, an opinion. You quite often have strong opinions of your own, sport.

Church Lady said...

Hi LS,
I have a different experience with bilingual people and immigrants. My German play-date friend, Lithuanian neighbors, Spanish friend, Iranian dentist, Korean and Pakistani friends (wow, I guess I'm naming most of the evil axis according to Bush), --plus volunteer tutoring ESL students for a year-----all of them mix English with their native tongues. And it didn't matter how fluent they were in English, what their native language was, or how old they were.
Anyway, that was a minor nit.

I'm not so pissed off about the 'fat American' thing, although coupled with the gay men staring at crotches generalization it makes me wonder if more characters are stereotyped in a few sentences rather than developed. The Jewish doctor, the black teenage male, and the flaming gay are a few of the generalizations that will make me put down a book.

Lightsmith said...

Robin, I never said that all Americans were overweight. I used the phrase "the people," which inherently suggests a generalization, IMO.

At any rate, the American people are fatter than the people of any other industrialized nation. Almost 70% of Americans over the age of 25 are overweight. That is a fact. So remarking on the fatness of the American people isn't exactly going out on a limb.

Bernita said...

So a character is not allowed to generalize, express himself in stereotypes and must be politically correct?

freddie said...

Well, in my previous comment i was saying that people shouldn't confuse the character's views with those of the author's, but Lightsmith has as much as admitted that he thinks Americans are fat. So never mind.

I'm going to the kitchen. Anybody want anything?

Anonymous said...

...random men on the street were staring at his crotch.

Is this believable? Does this happen? If so, then I can accept we're seeing life filtered through the character's prejudices; if not, then I'm more likely to suspect we're seeing the author's prejudices at work.

Lynn said...

Oi, the debate about fat Americans.

I think the point - which is pretty much moot if this opening isn't actually for anything and isn't going anywhere - is that these generalizations makes for a very unpleasant character.

It doesn't matter how fat Americans are. What matters is that the first thing Alexei notices is fat, and the first thing he does is assume they're all like that. It's about Alexei, not the author. And Alexei is a little twit. It's a lesson to learn - a good way to establish a negative quality in a character without actually telling that he's judgemental and not too bright.

Lightsmith said...

Reading what various people have said, I think they are commenting more on their own hangups/issues than on anything that actually appears in the text. It's turned out to be a rorschach test of sorts.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Lightsmith, I can understand how you feel, but truth is that once the words are out there you no longer have any control over them. It doesn't matter what you meant when you were writing: the piece means only what it means to the person who's reading it. You've got a mix of opinions -- good, bad indifferent -- and they're all valid because the meaning of the piece no longer belongs to you.

If you don't like some of the reactions you're getting and you want to change those reactions, then you need to change the story, 'cause you can't change the reader.

Lynn said...

To be fair, Lightsmith, you wrote an opening chock full of broad generalizations of Americans and their weight, sexual orientation, public behavior, so on. No one writes so many possibly offensive things into so few paragraphs without trying to stir a reaction in readers.

As the writer you've got to be aware of hangups a majority of your readers are going to have. A rorschach test could be a very effective opening. Just be aware of what you're doing.

BuffySquirrel said...

It's a shame this isn't going anywhere; I enjoyed what there was.

Robin S. said...

Actually I wasn't commenting on my issues - and by the way, if you knew me in person, you'd know I am not even remotely interested in pc-ness. Never was, never will be. Most pc people bore the living fuck out of me.

I thought you wanted to know if someone would or wouldn't read this, and why, or why not. I told you. The writing is OK, it's fine -not stratospherically amazing, and (maybe because of that) - the subject matter doesn't do it for me.

And yes, I'm well aware of the difference in a character's foibles versus an author's.

Ello said...

I have to say that since I am from Brooklyn and I assume that author is placing character in the Brighton Beach area of Brooklyn, as funny as this scene is, it just doesn't feel right. This is Brooklyn, people don't really stare at anything, they don't really care enough to. You would have to be a flamingly extravagant drag queen in full regalia to elicit this kind of staring, at least from the Brooklyn I know. some shmuck wearing tight jeans ain't gonna get 2 glances. There are still alot of idiots wearing tight jeans out there. This is not really that different. Now if you placed it in the village - different story.

Church Lady said...

Does anyone know where Russians get their sour cream?
I'm hungry again. I need a topper for my table of potatoes.

I spewed mashed potatoes and grease threw my nose at Ello's comments about flaming regalia. Then I had to go lick this greasy mush off the floor and walls. Which is why I'm hungry again.

Dave F. said...

Am I the only one beside EE who enjoyed this as satire more than serious literature? It's not Chaucer or Shakespeare. It could be Adams, Portnoy or Jacqueline Susan, possibly even Anthony Bourdain.
{{{{I mean, how can you not love a writer who compares overcooked squid in garlic sauce (Calamari e' Aglio) to foreskins?}}}

Lightsmith said...

Here is a revised version of the opening with everyone's suggestions incorporated:

One of the first things Alexei noticed upon arriving in America--aside from the fact that nearly 70% of the populace might be considered medically overweight, although this was just a rough estimate, and Alexei hated to generalize, seeing as there were also many slender, attractive people who could have been models--was that random men on the street were stealing furtive glances at his crotch. (It should be mentioned that there were also some other men who didn't look at his crotch, and these men very well may have had long-term monogamous boyfriends and liked to play football, but it was hard to tell all that from just passing them on the street.) The first few times these men glanced at his crotch, he instinctively checked his fly to see if it was open, but it never was.

"Greenwich Village has a higher than average proportion of male homosexuals, tovarish," Alexei said in Russian to his neighbor Natasha, who had lived in the U.S. for ten years and understood Americans--not that this was very difficult, because people are basically the same wherever you go.

"Moscow had homosexuals too, as does every country, but because of unfair persecution many of the Russian homosexuals stayed in the closet, which is why you never noticed them. What brings this up, tovarish?" she asked, adding, "У першу чергу, необхідно визнати, що на сьогоднішній"

He explained about how several men, who he appreciated were individuals and not representative of any broader group of people, had looked at his crotch.

She studied him, and a smile slowly spread across her face. “It’s your jeans, tovarish.”

"But I've had these for years, and nobody's ever stared at my crotch before. Not that there's anything wrong with that."

"Alexei, my boy, you are young and unfamiliar with the ways of the world, not to mention this foreign country, which we've both moved to because it's the land of opportunity, which isn't to say that other countries don't also offer many excellent opportunities, including Russia, our beloved homeland. What has transpired here is that your fashion sense is different from the fashion sense of many of the people around us. It's not better or worse, just different. And whereas you think the jeans you're wearing are quote-unquote normal, a certain proportion of the male homosexuals here have taken your wardrobe as a sign that you are also a homosexual, and they are sending you subtle signals that they would like to have sex with you. Tovarish."

"Wow," Alexei said, his eyes wide. "That's not so different from when I look at women on the street. I guess people are all the same! This has really opened my eyes!"

"And not a moment to soon, tovarish," Natasha said, putting her arm around Alexei in a non-sexual manner, "And not a moment too soon."

THE END. :-)

Robin S. said...

Now this is funny. I'd keep reading.

And you're up over 30 comments - a feat in itself.

Dave, I get what you mean about Portnoy and his Complaint, and i agree - I loved that novel. But it's all about the voice and the use of language, isn't it? The way Roth wrote, I'd have enjoyed him doing several pages on Portnoy simply taking a dump, and his thoughts 'during the act'. I don't have to love, love, love the protagonist to wanna keep reading.

Wonderwood said...

Bravo on the rewrite, Lightsmith! I'm still laughing.

Dave F. said...

That rewrite is even more fun. Good satire.

And as for "fat Americans" well, guys and girls, nots and whatnots, The CHICAGO SUN TIMES published this:
---- The people who brought you the Monster Thickburger and the 1,100-calorie salad are at it again -- this time for breakfast.
----Hardee's on Monday rolled out its new Country Breakfast Burrito -- two egg omelets filled with bacon, sausage, diced ham, cheddar cheese, hash browns and sausage gravy, all wrapped inside a flour tortilla. The burrito contains 920 calories and 60 grams of fat.
-----Brad Haley, marketing chief for the St. Louis-based fast-food chain, said the burrito offers the sort of big breakfast item normally found in sit-down restaurants with an added advantage.
----''It makes this big country breakfast portable,'' he said.


That and a Mikes Lemonade will get you going every day.

Ello said...

HA! Bravo Lightsmith! That was hysterical. You are a real goodsport!

Ello said...

Church lady is very naughty - flaming regalia... how painful.

Ali said...

Thank you for the laughs, Lightsmith. I liked the first version, but the rewrite was fabulous.

Anonymous said...

Nice comeback, Lightsmith.

Not sure I could have responded so well to all these whiny American chicks.

Robin S. said...

'whiny American chicks'.

Yeah. Being anonymous certainly does have its dickless little advantages, doesn't it?

Church Lady said...

Lightsmith--Hysterical! That was one of the funniest pieces I've read in a long time!! You ARE a good sport :-)


*R* Don't give dickless any attention.

Bernita said...

Geeze, and here I was thinking ( about the original) that, since Russia had suffered from various shortages and famines and such, no matter what his age, Alexei was reflecting a cultural memory ( at least.)
I liked it.
An immigrant's impressions don't have to be accurate.
And that's the fun.
So what's the fuss?

Xiexie said...

I don't know what they say in congrats or commendations in Russian, but great response, Lightsmith

Anonymous said...

Jeez, another failed attempt at ironic humor.

::Dickless slinks away thoroughly chastised::

Anonymous said...

OMG. What a great thread. I'm still laughing. You guys are great!

Wonderful writing, Lightsmith. I love your voice, your style. Your rewrite was amazing!

Sarah

Anonymous said...

I wonder if this debate would be any different if this passage was an actual opening to something.

Since there's no plot to foreshadow or tone of an entire novel to set, it's easy to play around and do the PC version, and harder to argue about establishing a real character, showing instead of telling, all that.

Be a bad-ass un-PC dude who patronizes his readers by rewriting his opening trying to prove their reactions are stupid, but what does it have to do with the craft of opening a novel?

writtenwyrdd said...

I liked this a lot, but I liked it a ton more with that continuation! A hoot!

If that were the real beginning, I'd read it.

I'd have to read a bit more to see if this were really the beginning of the story or just an opening that clues us in to Alexi's character.

But I loved that continuation...

Robin S. said...

Oooooh, anon 3:46 pm, you hit the nail on the head:

"Be a bad-ass un-PC dude who patronizes his readers by rewriting his opening trying to prove their reactions are stupid, but what does it have to do with the craft of opening a novel?"

Thank you. (Believe me, none of the whiny pc-happy [NOT] chicks here feel stupid.)

But - what you said is a really good one.

blogless_troll said...

Be a bad-ass un-PC dude who patronizes his readers by rewriting his opening trying to prove their reactions are stupid, but what does it have to do with the craft of opening a novel?

I'm highly offended by the implied generalization that everyone is here to learn the craft of opening a novel. For some of us, it's the only place we can read blue text. But you probably take it for granted. Spoiled, arrogant Americans.

iago said...

See, that's what I got from the "rewrite" too -- a pouty primadonna who didn't like the crit so set out to patronize the readers. But I thought that was just me.

Goes to show, again: you can't control the reader's reaction to the writing. Live with it.

Robin S. said...

Hi iago,

I think you and anon 3:46 are right on target.

But, even knowing that, I thought the rewrite was better than the original.

Plus, 'fighting' is fun! Hence the long, long comment thread.

iago said...

Plus, 'fighting' is fun!

Now we'z agreeing.

Anonymous said...

But, even knowing that, I thought the rewrite was better than the original.

There's a lesson here, perhaps?

Write from the heart, not from the head?