“’Magnificent!’ exclaimed John Paul Ziller, pronouncing the word like he was a Kansas City intellectual describing the Louvre to his sister-in-law who’d called to tell him to bring his vacation slides over some other night because she’d burned the spaghetti sauce and the baby had colic”.
You can’t always be sure if Tom Robbins is sending up or celebrating intentionally-bad writing.
The world that Robbins writes about exists primarily for himself; he is reliable as a narrator, in the sense that he always turns up, he actually places himself – as “the author” – in the text, but that’s about as far as you can trust him. He enjoys his job, revels in it in fact, and he really enjoys throwing language at the page (in that sense it is as accurate to compare him to Jackson Pollack as it is say, Kurt Vonnegut).
Robbins learned his brushstrokes from Richard Brautigan (a debt he admits and acknowledges on the pages of Another Roadside Attraction, his debut 1971 novel – the passage quoted above is from that book). Like Brautigan, Robbins has a keen eye for poetic brevity, and fills the diversionary strands of that novel’s plot with short, morality prose poems. It is a technique he has carried on throughout his career, yet he never seems like he’s repeating himself. The plot of Roadside Attraction – which to be honest should come with some kind of warning, at least recommending it as optional-only – features the author and a counter-cultural brood setting up a roadside hot-dog stand/zoo and exhuming the body of Jesus Christ as one of their features. The plot is put in place for Robbins to hang a series of farcical events and biting satire (both political and religious), but his writing is frequently page-turningly good.
In a way, I knew what to expect when I read Another Roadside Attraction – I’d read Brautigan already. And Vonnegut and Hunter S. Thompson and Kinky Friedman and if you somehow took bits and pieces from all of them and mixed it up and threw it at the page it might assemble itself as vaguely Robbins-shaped.
Oh, also, I’d read his third novel – Still Life With Woodpecker (1980). I’d had that recommended to me and even with those other authors in mind I really hadn’t read anything like that. That old adage about never judging a book by its cover is bullshit – sometimes. I thought the cover of Woodpecker was so cool – it made me want to read the book. Might have even made me want to like the book (just a little bit). The “plot” wasn’t easy but the writing was fun. By the time I moved on (back) to Roadside Attraction I knew what to expect.
Great blasts of fun.
Robbins has eight full-length novels to his name but he’s also dabbled as poet, songwriter and journalist. And in the 2005 collection Wild Ducks Flying Backwards you get to sample some of those delights, filed under a few different headings/themes. There are Travel Articles (which includes a visit to the Canyon Of The Vaginas) and Tributes (under which Robbins salutes all manner of folk, from McDonalds franchise owner, Ray Kroc, to Leonard Cohen, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Debra Winger). Then there’s Stories, Poems & Lyrics offering up exactly that – with the song lyrics reminiscent of Friedman and Robbie Fulks (that special brand of piss-take countrypolitan) while Musings & Critiques shows Robbins being serious (occasionally) and looking at the wider art-world. The final section, Responses, will draw fans in immediately. Short, sharp and witty – this is Robbins at his best, responding to questions that include: his favourite car and determining what writer’s block is. The function of metaphor. And finally the meaning of life…
Ok, so Robbins isn’t Woody Allen. But he can be damn funny. His travel writing takes on the tone of P.J. O’Rourke without the overtly political concerns. His tributes are off-beat but on the money and his ability to be super-critical of other writers and artists is a strong point.
The brilliance of Tom Robbins as a novelist is in part his commitment to absurdity – some sentences don’t make that much sense; some paragraphs are ludicrous – but his deceptive ability to construct a wildly imaginative story and to tell it with utmost sincerity, no matter how far out his conceit takes him, is a skill that will always be under-rated. Also some of his one-liners will break you up straight away; then he is also capable of pathos and frank dissection.
To me, what matters most about Robbins is the fact that he assures the reader, every step of the way (but without ever being painfully self-effacing) that he doesn’t actually matter. “The most useful thing about art is its uselessness” he begins in his bold analysis What Is Art And If We Know What Art Is, What Is Politics? And he’s right. Art is not necessary, that is precisely why it is precious.
Capable of giving you food for thought as well as snack to chuckle over, Robbins’ short writings are no slim pickings. And they serve as both the perfect introduction to a fine writer or a reminder to head back to his novels and the film-adaptations if it’s been a while since you stopped in on Tom Robbins’ unique place in the literary world.
After re-reading Wild Ducks I found his 2009 novella B Is For Beer in the public library. I hadn’t thought about Robbins for a while – there are still a couple of his novels I haven’t read (I’ve seen the film adaptation of Even Cowgirls Get The Blues, haven’t yet read the book). B Is For Beer is a children’s book. Naturally, given the wonderful madness of Robbins and his strange and silly worlds within his writing, B Is For Beer is a children’s story where young Gracie Perke learns all about beer – and why every adult loves it. The perfect material for a children’s book, right?
I’ve just bought Robbins’ memoir – Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life. I might have to start reading that right now. I had no fucking idea he was 82 years old. Rockin’ Robbins. He’s a brilliant, mad fool.
Authors I Admire started life as a series of posts on the Phantom Billstickers Facebook page