Hello, Rachel and Richard:

Do you feel that the woulds in the middle section here make sense? I mean, all this is in the past.

I'd have expected did instead, thus an indicative, not a subjunctive mood.

The got bit shows that the whole story took place in its entirety.

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[This guy pretends he can survive with venomous snakes around him]

"They found a public notary who said he would certify a document that said that Orest Mercator spent so many days incarcerated with these venoumous reptiles blah blah blah."

"Where would they find a large glass cage in Watertown?"

"They wouldn't."

"What would they find?"

"A room in the only hotel. Plus there were only three snakes. And he got bit in four minutes."

DeLillo, White Noise, p. 296
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Original Post
Here are my observations about all the sentences you've cited, Jerry:

It's odd that they say "public notary"; normally it's a notary public.

The use of would in the next three citations seems fine. I interpret them to mean that this is imaginary/conditional.

Let's examine the first sentence: Where would they find a large glass cage in Watertown (if they were looking for one)? It's a generalized conditional idea, but it's not in the past. This generalized idea of time continues in the next two sentences.

Then the writer or speaker goes into past reality after answering the question by saying, "A room in the only hotel." The rest is narration about what actually happened.

By the way, that last sentence is ungrammatical as bit is not the past participle of bite. It shows the writer/speaker is not very educated, and that's why I think we find the jumping around and mixing between general imaginary conditional ideas and a real past narrative. This is not a well written piece.

Well, those are my observations, Jerry, for what they're worth.

Richard
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This is direct speech that occurred in the past. It's not reported speech.

At the moment of speaking, Speaker A wants to know this: "Where would they find a large glass cage in Watertown?" This is a conditional referring to the present and future. It's like saying, "If they looked, where would they find a large glass cage in Watertown?"

Then Speaker B replies the equivalent of "If they looked, they wouldn't find a large glass cage."

Speaker A wants to know, "If they looked, what would they find?"

Then in the last line, Speaker B notes that if they looked, they would find a room in the only hotel. But, he switches to a past narrative then, apparently describing a scene that already happened, a scene in which there were three snakes that bit a man.

Rachel
Richard said:

quote:
It shows the writer/speaker is not very educated, and that's why I think we find the jumping around and mixing between general imaginary conditional ideas and a real past narrative. This is not a well written piece.


I agree on this one too:-)

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