Give Bob Greene credit. If his columns were merely tedious, merely idea-barren and repetitive, they wouldn’t merit much attention from thinking readers.

But Bob’s particular genius is his ability, through sheer egocentrism, to occasionally haul his column out of its usual lethargy and inject it into a realm so stunningly bad as to take our breath away.

“Some opening lines that make a lasting impression,” from April 23, is such a column.

At first glance, the column seems just another example of Bob filling space with other people’s writing. He does this a lot.

Last December, we saw two such columns–one of old movie lines, another of old newspaper leads. He said he was running an experiment. Yeah–an experiment to see how many columns he could waste before his zombified Tribune editors called him on it.

This time Bob’s excuse for handing his column over to strangers is even thinner. He is transcribing from a collection of opening lines from famous books–because such lines are in peril. They are “something of an endangered species in this emerging new era in which the first things people usually write are their log-in initials and passwords.”

Umm, I hate to burst your bubble, Bob, but authors sign on to their computers and then write the opening lines of their books. The log-ins themselves don’t get printed. Nothing is in danger.

Still, this is the same dull stuff we expect from Bob. He offers the opening lines from 15 books–some novels, some nonfiction–mostly chestnuts from the 1950s such as From Here to Eternity. The most recent citation is 28 years old. The thought that he should throw in a more up-to-date ringer, maybe Pynchon’s “A screaming comes across the sky,” which at least is from 1970, never occurs to Bob. Or perhaps he paled at the thought of cracking a book himself.

Then it happens. With a mighty grunt, Bob boosts the column from mediocrity into that zone of galling wrongness that he has claimed as his very own. Bob reprints this line: “Right at midnight last night, just as I was kissing Candy Grossman, something popped into my mind…”

“Wait a minute,” Bob demurs. “That one wasn’t in the collection. I don’t know where that one came from.”

Jesus, I do. That sentence, with its choppy clauses and blue-balls subject matter, smacks of Bob’s own oeuvre. It is the opening line of Bob’s painfully embarrassing revenge on Bexley, Ohio, Be True to Your School: A Diary of 1964.

I know why Bob did it. He wanted to see his own writing mentioned in the same breath as Winston Churchill’s, as John Hersey’s, as Truman Capote’s. And he knew that if he didn’t do it himself, nobody ever would.

–Ed Gold

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Jeff Heller.