Killer Final Sentences

Warning:  this post contains spoilers.  How else can you write about final sentences?

I started really paying attention to the final sentences of short stories in 2009, when I first read Joshua Ferris’s story “The Valetudinarian” in The New Yorker.  I hadn’t bothered to look up the word “valetudinarian,” so I didn’t get the full benefit of the sentence at the time; what grabbed me about it was first its musicality, and second, its length (I plan to try to diagram it someday so I can better appreciate its construction). 

When I re-read the story in BASS 2010 last month, I finally got around to looking up “valetudinarian” – a person who believes himself to be chronically sick, a hypochondriac.  Arty Groys, widower, gradually alienates almost everyone of his acquaintance with his hypochondriac obsession with his failing health.  For his birthday, Arty receives a “gift” that revitalizes him mentally and emotionally, but also causes him to have a heart attack and to blow out one of his knees.  At the end of the story, Arty is running from the cops.  He knows he should stop but keeps on running; and he knows that he may already have re-injured his knee, his heart, or both.  He also remembers that one doesn’t always feel the pain immediately after an injury:

 “The infielder missed, and the ball went long, and when he saw that he was free for a run to third he jumped up and took off, despite the hairline fracture that would make itself known – through a pain that came with a dawning awareness of what lay in store – only later, long after he had passed the third-base coach gesturing like mad and made it home, graceful as a dancer, bodiless, ageless, immortal, a boy on a summer day with a heart as big as the sun, with all his troubles, his sorrows, his losses, all his whole long life still ahead of him, still unknown, unable on that still golden field to cast its tall, unvanquishable, ever-dimming shadow.”

I thought that the final sentence beautifully summed up Arty’s life, his hypochondria, his return to “life,” the author’s thoughts about aging and the frequent obsession of the elderly with their failing health, and even some thoughts about mortality and eternity.

Another final sentence that summarizes a story brilliantly can be found in Jim Shepard’s story “The Netherlands Lives with Water” ( McSweeney’s, no. 32/BASS 2010).  The story, set a few years in the future, is about the convergence of two cataclysmic events:  a major flood in the Netherlands set off by global warming, and the dissolution of the narrator’s marriage to the beautiful Cato.  At the end of the story, the narrator remembers how he and Cato had listened to his mother talk about the flood of 1953, during which two of her brothers had been swept away.  Only one of his mother’s memories made Cato cry – the memory of a speech given by the queen of the Netherlands after the flood.  The narrator’s mother has kept a recording of the speech, which she plays for her son and daughter-in-law (and their dog, Henk).

“And my mother held Cato’s hand and Cato held mine and Henk gave us fair warning of anything approaching of interest, while the Queen’s smooth and warm voice thanked us all for the way we had worked together in that one great cause, soldiering on without a thought for care, or grief, or inner divisions, and without even realizing that we were denying ourselves.”

I found a third killer final sentence in Lori Ostlund’s story “All Boy” (The New England Review, vol. 30, no. 3/BASS 2010).  It’s a story that plays with the denotative and connotative meanings of the phrase “in the closet,” escape from reality, a boy’s coming of age, life’s fundamental instability, and the relationship between a father who is coming to terms with his homosexuality and his son. 

“The thought of this filled him with terror, and as he stood there in the driveway watching his father leave, Harold found himself longing for the dark safety of the closet:  the familiar smells of wet wool and vacuum cleaner dust; the far-off chatter of Mrs. Norman’s television shows; the line of light marking the bottom of the locked door, a line so thin that it made what lay on the other side seem, after all, like nothing.”

One that’s short, taut, and deceptively simple is the final sentence of Ron Rash’s story “The Ascent” (Tin House, no. 39/BASS 2010): 

“He knew then that they had taken off and risen so high that they were enveloped inside a cloud, but still he looked down, waiting for the clouds to clear so he might look for the blue pickup, making its way through the snow, toward the place they were all headed.”

“He” is a young boy, the son of two crack addicts, who has found bodies of a dead couple in the wreckage of an airplane that crashed near his home in the Smoky Mountains.  At the end of the story, the boy’s parents drive off in their pickup truck to trade the dead pilot’s watch for more dope, and the boy returns to the plane, the dead couple inside it, and the world he has imagined for himself.  I love the way that the final sentence plays with cocaine imagery and mortality.  It may be the most finely crafted sentence I’ve read all year.

Finally, this week I read and re-read the final sentence of Sam Lipsyte’s story “Deniers” (The New Yorker, May 2, 2011): 

“When Cal was just a little more stable, she’d break up with him, gently, and then she’d begin her project of helping everybody she could help, and after that she’d head out on a great long journey to absolutely nowhere and write a gorgeous poem cycle steeped in heavenly lavender-scented closure and also utter despair, a poem cycle you could also actually ride for its aerobic benefits, and she’d pedal that f—-r straight across the face of the earth until at some point she’d coast right off the edge, whereupon she’d giggle and say, “Oh, s—t.”

Read the story.  See for yourself all the great things that this sentence is doing.

All of these favorite final sentences work on me like the final bars of the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.  I love final sentences that are a kind of grand apotheosis, a perfect distillation of the story’s meaning (perhaps because they help me to “get” the meaning of the story); final sentences that carry the weight of the story in just a few words; final sentences that are the culmination of everything important the writer has been trying to say in the piece.

Do you have any favorite final sentences?  What are they, and why?

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About readersquest

I'm a retired naval officer and writer. I live with my husband, two sons, and several family pets in a house in the woods.
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