Tunnel whizzing by.

There’s a special kind of torture in writing novels. It is, of course, The Beginning. Twitter threads and the conferences and podcasts insist, at decibels that seem to increase as quickly as the number of titles on shelves, that if you cannot capture a reader in the first 250/150/50 words, you are finished as a writer and possibly as a human being.

Ben Purkert did it in 41 words. I break our style rule and tell you this with a digit because its impossibility feels so much more legible that way (surely, it must be impossible? But I counted myself, with my finger.) I tell you this here — I begin in awe at his beginning — because I stopped, delighted. I kept going (who wouldn’t?) and read the rollicking whole of the The Men Can’t Be Saved, Purkert’s first novel, and then I went back and studied that first paragraph. How did a mere forty-one words so immediately, so perfectly, establish a narrator’s voice, a novel’s rhythm, even me, the reader, who felt called into a chummier version of myself by this irresistible narrator’s “you”? (How did Purkert, in a mere forty-one words, win me over to and through the two things I quarrel with most often at Guernica — em-dashes and the second person?) It’s almost as if the novelist is a poet. (Dear reader, the novelist is a poet, and the founding editor of Guernica‘s beloved Back Draft, a series of conversations with writers about how they revise to the most muscular, precise, powerful lines they can muster.)

The “you” fades, but the conversational feel, the storytelling, it established does not. It does, though, begin to get away from Seth, the charismatic copywriter, a catchy if unlikeable narrator (it’s an if, even though he can also be patently awful) whose bluster is matched only by the velocity of events that upend it. The Men Can’t Be Saved is, as the reviews say, a novel that asks the big questions — work, identity, toxic masculinity, religion, friendship. Unlike its protagonist, it is also a novel of humility, one whose mastery needn’t announce itself. Seth may not see himself coming, but Purkert is smart enough to stay out of his own way, and our reading is all the more gratifying for it.

—Jina Moore Ngarambe for Guernica

The road of life equals adventure.
Every twist takes your breath away.
Every turn reveals a new opportunity.
You chase excellence every day
because that’s what fuels your fire.
Whenever you travel from A to Z,
the journey is what matters most.
You demand a premium experience.
You deserve more from your mileage.
So when you fill up at the pump,
prime your pistons with lasting power.
TurboLast. Go more on each gallon.

It was 10:00 p.m., and I’d spent much of the day at my desk, dragging my cursor over and back across these few lines, pointlessly adjusting their font and size, frenetically at times, so it appeared the words were twitching under the hands of a torturer, or possibly trembling with unspeakable desire. It was a brand manifesto for Citgo, or more specifically, Citgo’s diesel subsidiary. No high-priority client, not like Lexus. The brief didn’t mention a tagline, but I’d included one anyway. At RazorBeat, we overdelivered out of fear of losing accounts, though business was booming after a little rebranding of our own. With a handful of the top agencies discarding fossil fuel clients, a niche emerged for those willing to get their hands dirty. Every turn reveals a new opportunity.

I copied the manifesto into an email to Diego. To temper my boss’s expectations, I peppered in the usual caveats (“took a first stab,” “gave it a crack”) and noted in them a latent violence. Was I repressing anger? Sure, but didn’t all creatives seethe under the surface? And didn’t we all recycle the same clichés, wearing them down along their hard edges? If you say “stab” enough times, the knife disappears.

Josie’s G-chat icon was green, so she was still in the office. I typed a joke about how we both had no lives, our youth squandered, hahahahaha. When she didn’t reply after a few minutes, I apologized. I was being insensitive, and if I wanted to make fun of myself, fine, but I had no right to disparage her or her life choices. And just as soon as I’d taken the high road, I felt a swell of indignation, because honestly it was just a joke, why was she being like this?! More silence. I began walking — nay, marching — into the design studio and there I found her slumped over, forehead beside keyboard, snoring in the company of her ergonomic mouse. An Omni Café takeout container sat on her desk. She’d barely touched her lunch.

The scene called for sympathy. Or was it empathy? I was always mixing up the two: should I feel for someone, or as someone? Lexus was killing her; she complained about it all the time. Just this afternoon, as we’d walked into the Omni — that melting pot of worldly fare, a gag-inducing remnant of New York’s past — she’d rattled off a dozen new frustrations while storming a dreary island of pho, pierogi, and jerk chicken wraps. I nodded (sympathetically? empathetically?) as she filled a plastic container she’d never finish.

Josie’s breathing skipped, and I worried she might wake up. Would it startle her to find me there, standing so close? She insisted we maintain distance at work. During lunch breaks, we staggered our comings and goings by exactly three minutes, lest colleagues start gossiping. We had slept together, but just once, a year ago. It was nothing, a flame that blew out on its own. Still, we made sure coworkers never saw us exit or enter together. If they were indeed monitoring us, we’d have seemed two souls cursed by near misses, a couple of lines that couldn’t quite intersect.

I scanned the surrounding desks; everyone had gone home. Moon’s office lamp was on, but that meant nothing. Too lazy to turn it off. As Josie’s snoring resumed a steady cadence, I was about to walk away, but not before reading out loud — in a whisper — my manifesto. I’m not sure what led me to do it. I recited it from memory, surprised that I could recall the whole thing. At first I used a self-effacing delivery, mocking what I’d written. Then I read it again, less jokingly. By the third time through, my own earnestness disturbed me. Go more on each gallon. It was a dumb manifesto for a brand of gas, but I was treating it like an expression of heartfelt emotion, an impassioned valediction. As if I was imploring Josie, with a glint of drool barely visible, to abandon slumber and explore the world.

Leaving the studio, I lingered at RazorBeat’s “Hall of Fame” — a backlit row of logos framed on the wall, the most famous ones our agency could claim. Josie evinced no pride in them. Our clients had conservative taste, so her work reflected their aversion to the avant-garde. Still, she had to feel something, right? Didn’t it mean anything, seeing your very own logos bathed in a buzz of halogen? Seeing them everywhere in fact: on TV, on billboards, on crosstown buses? By the time I got back to my desk, I saw she was still asleep. Her G-chat icon had grayed.

I worried about her wellbeing. Sometimes, when we’d make eye contact in meetings, she’d flash an expression of exaggerated insanity, grinning brightly like a bone popped from its socket. It wasn’t a joke, though. The place truly was driving her nuts. And yet I struggled to take her complaints seriously. Really, who cared if Diego once ripped a highlighter out of her hand to illuminate an error with her gradient, or that time he punched mute while she was speaking on a conference call, the long braid of her voice snipped off? Wasn’t it worth it? For Lexus? I’d have gladly traded places with her. And wasn’t that the true test of empathy? The willingness to swap lives? Not that I cared about Lexus in particular, but at least it had name recognition. Why bother wasting time on a client nobody knows? The point was to attach yourself to a big-name brand — to cling feverishly to it, and feel less nameless yourself.

I was about to head home when my laptop chimed.

To: Seth Taranoff
Re: TurboLast manifesto
“fuels your fire” = bad for petrol
haha, talk tomorrow, S
sent from an iPhone, please pardon all rubbish

My teeth began grinding. Had Diego even read my whole manifesto? My email sent at 10:05; his reply came at 10:11. Just six minutes, or twice what Josie deemed a suitable buffer from a lunch partner. It wasn’t only the tone of his message that infuriated me. It was that he was right. I had unknowingly violated the first rule of branding. I had opened the door to a dark place in the consumer’s mind.

I had written “fire” without seeing the flames.

Ben Purkert’s debut novel,The Men Can’t Be Saved, is out now from Overlook Press.

Ben Purkert

Ben Purkert is the author of the debut novel The Men Can't Be Saved and the poetry collection For the Love of Endings. His work appears or is forthcoming in The New Yorker, Slate, Poetry, The Nation, The Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere. He currently teaches creative writing at Rutgers.