Manhattan Transferred - Parsing Passos

EAT on a lunchwagon halfway down the block. He slid stiffly onto a revolving stool and looked for a long while at the pricelist.
“Fried eggs and a cup o coffee.”
“Want 'em turned over?” asked the redhaired man behind the counter who was wiping off his beefy freckled forearms with his apron. Bud Korpenning sat up with a start.
“The eggs? Want em turned over or sunny side up?”
“Oh sure, turn 'em over.” Bud slouched over the counter again with his head between his hands.
“You look all in, feller,” the man said as he broke the eggs into the sizzling grease of the frying pan.
“Came down from upstate. I walked fifteen miles this mornin.”
The man made a whistling sound through his eyeteeth. “Comin to the big city to look for a job, eh?”
Bud nodded. The man flopped the eggs sizzling and netted with brown out onto the plate and pushed it towards Bud with some bread and butter on the edge of it. “I'm goin to slip you a bit of advice, feller, and it won't cost you nutten. You go an git a shave and a haircut and brush the hayseeds out o yer suit a bit before you start lookin. You'll be more likely to git somethin. It's looks that count in this city.”
“I kin work all right. I'm a good worker,” growled Bud with his mouth full.
“I'm tellin yez, that's all,” said the redhaired man and turned back to his stove.

The above is an extract from the very beginning of John Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer, written in 1925.

Before this scene in an American eatery, then in the 1920’s called a lunch wagon, in Manhattan, New York, a man named Bud Korpenning has been walking around some city streets filled with yellow street cars. He is trembling from hunger, and he is cold.

He doesn’t even have the strength, so hungry was he, to even register fully the sign on the lunch wagon which says “EAT”. His mind just registers a phrase, a part of a full sentence, a fragment of a full picture. It just zooms in on the word EAT, which says it all : a peremptory command to take in sustenance, victuals. The actual sign could probably have more than just the word EAT.

And in the next sentence you immediate see him sliding onto a revolving seat and reading the menu. You don’t even read if there are any actions – walking towards the lunch wagon, looking in, putting his hand onto the door know to push open the door and enter, walking over to a stool - from the time he first saw the EAT sign and the time he sat down in the eatery. You immediately see him inside. The only drawn out action is his looking though the menu for a long time, even though he is very hungry and wants to order quickly. This is because he is looking for the cheapest meal. At this stage of the story you don’t see his stubbles and the shabby clothes he has on: you learn about them from the eatery cook later on, when he gives Bud some free advice on looking more presentable in order to land a job.

The setting is like a movie from a script that goes:

Cut to:
A sign on a lunch wagon : EAT.

Cut to:
Bud sitting himself onto a revolving stool. He looks into a menu, going though the list of prices. The shot holds on Bud for a very long time, as he reads.

Back to the narration:

Bud asks for fried eggs and coffee, and we see the cook for the first time. He has no name throughout the narration; just the man or the redhaired man. However, Passos the writer wants us the reader to notice the man’s arms as he is “wiping off his beefy freckled forearms with his apron”. The alliteration of f’s in the four words together, in “his beefy freckled forearms”, highlights – or foregrounds – this image. The screenplay line could probably be:

Shot of Bud:
Fried eggs and a cup o coffee.

Redhaired Man
Want 'em turned over?

Tight shot of Redhaired Man using his apron to wipe off his beefy freckled forearms.

Quick cut to Bud giving a start.

Then you see both of them talking, about how Bud wants his eggs, about how tired Bud looks, about Bud having walked 15 miles, about the man observing that Bud is looking for work.

In the next paragraph, the second sentence is very deliberately wrought as one long sentence, or rather two joined by an and. The whole line is without a single comma. As you read it, you see the man flipping the readied eggs onto a plate. You see the eggs which are sizzling and netted with brown. You see him push the plate towards Bud. Only now, right at the end of the sentence, do you see some bread and butter on the edge of it.

Without any comas to bracket the incidental description of the eggs, and to mark some bread . . . , we tend to read the entire line without any pause, right to the end. This line evokes the swift action of the man having finished cooking the eggs and shoving them on a plate towards Bud. It is not even a plate but the plate, as if a plate is readied on the counter, way before the cooking, for placing the eggs on. The writer assumes the reader will also have presumed the presence of this plate. The pushing of the plate is so fast that we miss seeing the bread and butter, until they appear in front of Bud.

The action of pushing is given prominence with alliteration in “plate and pushed”. The group of words “bread and butter” gets close attention (or a close camera shot) from its alliterating b’s and its placement at the end of the line. You might argue, no, but “the edge of it” is the last placement. Not really, as this group of words is not the head of a phrase; it rather qualifies or describes the real head of phrase, the “bread and butter”.

I have only just read through the first few chapters, and I have already found some great bits of writing, which can be dissected for showing Passos’ genius in planning his sentences.


  1. bibliobibuli says

    When I read I too often gollop down the words, scared to lose the flow of story. But taking writing up close - looking at technique - taking it apart like a piece of machinery is the only way to see how the writer has achieved his effect. And ultimately to learn. Enjoyed doing this with Jeffrey Eugenides "Middlesex"(he really plays some clever tricks!), with Will Self (read first chapter of "Great Apes" three times though I didn't like the book as a whole), Andrew Miller, de Lillo's "Underworld" ... and of course my favourite, Annie Proulx (everything!). Great writing stands this kind of scrutiny, mediocre writing not.

    Mental note to self - read something by Passos.

    P.S. enjoyed Sunday's piece but oh ... have skipped a beat as far as popular music is concerned - feel such an old fogey!

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