Let's take a second to talk about opening sentences.
Stephen King, if nothing else, is a guy who knows something about selling books. He says an opening sentence should say, "Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this."
Okay, makes sense. You want a nice little hook, a sentence that introduces voice and hopefully compels readers' eyes to slide on over to that second sentence. You want to force your audience to care enough to read on.
Well, I read 'The Road' a few weeks back, Cormac McCarthy's novel that brought home the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2007. Dystopian, post-apocalyptic stuff - genre fiction, right? Not exactly your everyday high-lit Pulitzer fare. So I sat down and thought Alright, let me figure out what the hell's goin' on here.
First sentence: "When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out to touch the child sleeping behind him." Boom.
I don't know who "he" is, I don't know who "the child" is, and I definitely don't know why the two of them are sleeping together in the woods.
But I want to find out.
Over the next 250+ pages "he" and "the child" are developed into one of the most touching, heart-wrenching father-son duos I've come across in fiction. And I read a lot of fiction.
If you've seen 'Book of Eli' you know what kind of setting we're dealing with - a world in bonedust grays and browns, where humanity has devolved into desperation, where desolation reigns. There are only a few references to some vague nuclear event that led us here. "The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions...A dull rose in the windowglass" is really the most explicit explanation we get.
But what we get plenty of is the father and son dredging along, starving and heading south, where it's still warm. They avoid rockslides and escape cannibals, each of them utterly hopeless, but somehow able to find a spark of hope in the eyes of the other. They take turns dragging each other forward, refusing to submit to the lonely death that looms as an inevitability.
As powerful as their dynamic is, McCarthy's minimalist style detracts from the relationship at times. There are no quotation marks, anywhere. It makes the text on the page look as bare as the world they're in, but it also seems a bit impersonal. Like a biblical history and not a loving relationship you can see, feel, or touch. But that's about the only criticism I can come up with.
Bookforum said "it is as if you must keep reading in order for the characters to stay alive," and I totally agree. They are so often in such desperate danger that it seems like you reading that next sentence is all that might see them through.