He had bumped into the wrong desk, causing the breakfast to flip over and hit the floor facedown. Lindahl stooped to pick up the plate, but the omelet stuck to the black linoleum, which was now a black ocean, and that omelet the sandy desert island, with the solitary strip of bacon sticking up from it, slightly slumped but brave, the perfect representation of the stranded sailor, alone and waiting for his cartoon caption. On the floor, it looked like what the Greeks call acheiropoietoi, a pictorial image not made by a human hand.
—Ask The Parrot, Part Two, Chapter 1, Richard Stark (a k a Donald E. Westlake)
I read Ask The Parrot on Monday, less than a day after a 16-hour transcontinental flight from the last secret town on my itinerary to New Jersey. I read the first 98 pages between three and four in the morning as an antidote to jet lag, then put it down and got another hour of sleep. When I picked up the book again, this particular paragraph was the first one I read.
Westlake, who just passed away in recent months, is hardly a hard-boiled writer, though he does write about hard-boiled topics. Ask The Parrot is one of his Parker novels, about a bank robber on the lam who plans a racetrack robbery. A more typical paragraph is this one, from the first chapter:
Seen up close, there was a tension in the man that seemed to be a part of him, not something caused by running into a fugitive in the woods. His hands were clenched on the rifle, and his eyes were bitter, as though something had harmed him at some point and he was determined not to let it happen again.
But the sheer transport of joy involved in describing a tipped-over stale breakfast as acheiropoietoi obviously caught my attention and that’s why I’m sharing it with you. It goes to the heart of figurative writing. Digressing as the first quote, about the omelet, does, allows the tension of the scene to dissipate in the reader’s mind while the characters still labor within its constraints. It’s not Parker or Lindahl, the two characters in the scene, who are describing the omelet one to another, but the author describing it to the reader. It breaks the scene open and allows the reader, for the space of a breath, to perceive the book as a text, rather than as a story.