Ron Charles has written an intriguing article for the Washington Post on famous last lines in fiction. Intriguing in that the lines summarize the emotional volume of the work. They leave you with a sense of satisfaction, a reward for reading to the end.
Charles leads with an example from the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which the restless Huck foreshadows people as disparate as Jack Kerouac and Cole Porter (you remember 1934’s “Don’t Fence Me In”):
I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.
Haven’t we all. Which is why I’d like to add a few memorable lines to the list.
From Philip Kerr’s novel The Pale Criminal, in which former Berlin police officer Bernie Gunther takes on the ugly and ironic job of solving crime in Nazi Germany. In the final scene, Gunther watches workers rake and burn leaves in the Botanical Gardens, “the acrid gray smoke hanging in the air like the last breath of lost souls.”
But always there were more, and more still, so that the burning middens seemed never to grow any smaller, and as I stood and watched the glowing embers of the first, and breathed the hot gas of deciduous death, it seemed to me that I could taste the very end of things.
Anna Quindlen also writes about endings in Miller’s Valley—of the drowning of a community and its culture, the loss of the narrator’s family farm and her brother Tommy—but comes to a different conclusion:
I never go over that way, to the recreation area. Never have, in all these years, even when the kids wanted to water-ski or swim. I let them go with someone else. I don’t even drive by there. But every couple of years I have a dream. I dive down into green water and I use my arms to push myself far below the surface and when I open my eyes there are barn roofs and old fences and a chimney and a silo and sometimes I sense that Tommy’s there, too, and the corn can, and my father’s workbench, and a little tan vanity case floating slowly by. But I swim in the opposite direction, back toward the light, because I have to come up for air. I still need to breathe.
While it cannot compare with Twain or Quindlen or Kerr, a final line from the first in the CW McCoy series of crime novels, Peak Season, carries its own emotional punch. CW has run to Florida to escape her violent past. Here she shares birthday cake and the mission to protect her grandfather with friend and mentor Walter Bishop:
Taking a deep breath I said, “You know what I’d like?”
“What I came here for . . . peace and quiet.” I pecked him on the cheek. “No more drama. From now on, I’m selling real estate and taking care of Pap.”
He gave me a cracked smile. “We’ll see.”
Isn’t what why we read to the end of anything?
What’s your closer?