Is there a better opening dream sequence?

black cherry blues

Dreams in books are always thought-provoking for me as a reader.

On the one hand, they can take a reader deep inside the head of a character in a way almost nothing else does.  On the other hand, they can come across as hinky, as an author’s slight of hand when he couldn’t think of any other way to try to get his point across.

And don’t even get me started on books that turn out to be nothing but an extended dream, those where the the character wakes up in the last paragraph and breathes a sigh of relief that all of that stuff in the last three hundred pages didn’t really happen to him.

I hate that.  The last time I ran into one of those books, I swore I would never read anything else by that author.  And I haven’t.  As a reader I felt cheated when I discovered it was all a dreamy hoax.

But the thing on my mind today is one small subset of the “dreams in novels” category: the use of a dream sequence to open a book. 

I think of this because I was listening to Mark Hammer’s narration of James Lee Burke’s Black Cherry Blues this weekend.  I had forgotten the opening passage, but it’s so good, I have to share it with you in its entirety.

Her hair is curly and gold on the pillow, her skin white in the heat lightning that trembles beyond the pecan trees outside the bedroom window. The night is hot and breathless, the clouds painted like horsetails against the sky; a peal of thunder rumbles out on the Gulf like an apple rolling around in the bottom of a wooden barrel, and the first raindrops ping against the window fan.  She sleeps on her side, and the sheet molds her thigh, the curve of her hip, her breast.  In the flicker of the heat lightning the sun freckles on her bare shoulder look like brown flaws in sculpted marble.

Then a prizing bar splinters the front door out of the jamb, and the two men burst inside the house in heavy shoes, their pump shotguns at port arms.  One is a tall Haitian, the other a Latin whose hair hangs off his head in oiled ringlets.  They stand at the foot of the double bed in which she sleeps alone, and do not speak.  She awakes with her mouth open, her eyes wide and empty of meaning. Her face is still warm from a dream, and she cannot separate sleep from the two men who stare at her without speaking. Then she sees them looking at each other and aim their shotguns point-blank at her chest.  Her eyes film and she calls out my name like a wet bubble bursting in her throat.  The sheet is twisted in her hands; she holds it against her breasts as though it could protect her from twelve-gauge deer slugs and double-aught buckshot.

They begin shooting, and the room seems to explode with smoke and flame from their shotgun barrels, with shell wadding, mattress stuffing, splinters gouged out of the bedstead, torn lampshades, flying glass. The two killers are methodical.  They have taken out the sportsman’s plug in their shotguns so they can load five rounds in the magazine, and they keep firing and ejecting the smoking hulls on the floor until their firing pins snap empty.  Then they reload with the calmness of men who might have just stood up in a blind and fired at a formation of ducks overhead.

The sheet is torn, drenched with her blood, embedded in her wounds.  The men have gone now, and I sink to my knees by my wife and kiss her sightless eyes, run my hands over her hair and wan face, put her fingers in my mouth.  A solitary drop of her blood runs down the shattered headboard and pools on my skin.  A bolt of lightning explodes in an empty field behind the house. The inside of my head is filled with a wet, sulphurous smell, and again I hear my name rise like muffled, trapped air released from the sandy bottom of a pond.

Wow.  That’s a dream sequence that does so many things to me as a reader.   I really can’t imagine someone who could read those first few paragraphs and say, “Oh, this book is not worth the time it will take to read it.”

Can you?

Once again, I bow at the sheer beauty of James Lee Burke’s prose, and I shudder to think what it would be  like to live in Dave Robicheaux’s head.



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