If you are an avid reader, you will occasionally come across a description that will force you to put down your book. You wonder if the passage could possibly be as good as you just thought it was. You reread. If you were correct in your original assessment, consider yourself lucky: You’ve unearthed an image that will stay with you.
The Hangover has two favorites. I first read Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer as a teenager. It’s remarkable that even today when I hear “Paris,” it’s not my own impressions of the city that come to mind, but Miller’s description of it. And when The Hangover spent a week in Florida last month, palm trees sent my Disney-rattled brain straight to prose from Leslie Epstein’s San Remo Drive.
From Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller returns to Paris after a weekend away:
“Paris is like a whore. From a distance she seems ravishing, you can’t wait until you have her in your arms. And five minutes later you feel empty, disgusted with yourself. You feel tricked.”
From San Remo Drive, the narrator and his friends retreat to Los Angeles after an unsettling “coming of age” road trip to Tijuana:
“It was almost three in the morning when we reached Santa Monica. In the darkness the rows of palm trees looked frayed and exploded, like trick cigars.”
It’s worth noting that both of the descriptions involve the perspective of a return and are achieved through simile. While metaphor is considered the pinnacle of writerly technique, mastery exists in the above prose. Aristotle called simile, “a metaphor with a preface.” In these pieces, that “preface” intensifies the effect. Character and place are brilliantly revealed.