Yes, ’tis the season for catching up on first page critiques from our TKZ “In” box. Today we’re reviewing the first page of PORTRAIT OF A YOUNG MAN. Please add your feedback for today’s brave writer in the Comments.
Portrait of a Young Man
I picked up the dead man about twenty miles west of Columbus. I stopped to take care of my business and grab a soda at a Pilot gas station at mile marker seventy-nine. When I returned to my car I found him in the passenger seat. He was the one I’d seen frequently in the weeks before, but I’d seen him then in my dreams, not in the waking day, and certainly not in my Civic. I went back into the station and milled about for a solid fifteen minutes, examining overpriced sunglasses and t-shirts, hoping the dead man would wander off. But when I went back, he was still there.
So, I got in the car and I drove. I still had some miles to cover. I had a job waiting in Cleveland. Not too much rough stuff, Maxwell had promised.
My passenger was, as he had been in my dreams, clad in a Prussian blue Union greatcoat with a small cape. The double-bar insignia on his lapels showed his rank to be that of a captain and the crossed sabers on his slouch hat meant he was cavalry. In my dreams, I’d seen him only from afar, charging on horseback across some remote fog-blurred field of battle with his sword raised, into a fusillade of Confederate musket fire. In my dreams the wounds he suffered were but specks in the smoky distance. Up close and sitting beside me I saw them as jagged, fleshy holes, one above the left eye and one through the throat. They bled, as he sat, but not so much as to seem to distract him.
My car was old, built before smoking had become unofficially criminal, and the dead officer spent several minutes inspecting my lighter, pressing it in and waiting for it to pop out again. He inspected the glowing coils closely and returned the thing to its slot to repeat the process. He made a quick examination of the glove box, taking no apparent interest in the 1911 .45 caliber pistol I kept there, then he just stared out the window, watching the cornfields of central Ohio glide slowly by.
Unlike Larry, and most of my other visitors, he never said so much as a word. He began to fade around mile marker one-fifty, heading north on I-71. He was totally gone before we passed through Mansfield, twenty-five miles later.
My feedback: I’m intrigued by the underlying notion here: a dream image suddenly materializes in the passenger seat of the narrator’s Honda Civic in the form of a Zombie Yank officer, who calmly proceeds to rummage through the glove box. Who wouldn’t want to hear more about that?
That being said, I was confused about what type of story to expect here. The narrator’s lack of reaction to his bizarre driving companion is puzzling, for example. If I suddenly encountered a hitchhiker plucked from a recurring dream, I’d immediately assume that someone had slipped a spiked mushroom into my breakfast casserole. Here, however, the narrator displays little reaction to the bizarre passenger. That muted response muffles the dramatic impact of the scene, making the opening seem a tad flat despite its compelling setup.
The title doesn’t help the reader anticipate what type of story to expect. PORTRAIT OF A YOUNG MAN sounds like a Joycean, literary title rather than mystery or suspense.
Craft-wise, the writer should pay heed to punctuation rules and edit with an eye to avoiding run-on sentences and an overuse of commas.
Overall, the writer grabbed my interest with the opening image, but he needs to add “more”: more narrator reaction is needed to punch up the drama and set the stage for this story; more context is also needed to clarify certain details as the scene progresses (who is “Larry”, for instance?).
Update: After rereading the page, I realized belatedly that this story is in the zombie mystery category. I never read that genre, so I missed a couple of cues that might have been obvious to fans of that genre. (The reference to “other visitors”, in my case). It’s generally a good idea to write a scene so that even newbies to a genre can “see” clearly what is going on in a scene during the first reading.
Please share your thoughts about PORTRAIT OF A YOUNG MAN in the Comments. And we thank today’s brave anonymous writer for submitting this first page!