×
Home Culture Culture Features

Taking Tom Robbins Seriously

The critics don’t, but the author of ‘Even Cowgirls Get the Blues’ has the last laugh

Tom Robbins

Author Tom Robbins in Los Angeles, California on May 28th, 1994.

Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage/Getty

Tom Robbins has already managed two remarkable feats during his brief career as a novelist. His first book, Another Roadside Attraction, became, with almost no publicity, an underground classic among a generation not terribly inclined toward the novel form in the first place—perhaps because, in many ways, ARA is the quintessential counterculture novel.

Robbins’ second book, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, has found a similarly appreciative audience. And it has also suggested a new way to reach that audience: an object lesson couched in solid sales figures that could help change the nature of American fiction publishing.

Not, in all, a bad track record for a novelist whose previous fiction experience was limited to childhood fantasies and one first place win in an Air Force short story contest. But even so, Robbins remains a relatively mysterious figure; rumors abound among his fans as to his lifestyle and whereabouts, and it took considerable arm-twisting simply to coax him out of his Washington state retreat to do a handful of interviews and appearances for Cowgirls.

When Robbins agreed to do a ROLLING STONE interview, it sounded ideal. Not only did he promise to be an interesting fellow, but from the nature of his novels—unalloyed wordplay and a rich, almost hedonistic use of language—he would probably also be a cinch interview. A counterculture Brendan Behan: just switch on the Sony and let him expound. 

What Robbins fan would ever have expected that the new king of the extended metaphor, dependent clause, outrageous pun and meteorologic personification would turn out, on first meeting, to be just about as talkative as a Puget Sound clam?

“A book may measure so-called reality as a clock measures so-called time; a book may create an illusion of reality as a clock creates an illusion of time; a book may be real, just as a clock is real … but let’s not kid ourselves—all a clock contains is wheels and springs and all a book contains is sentences.”
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

WE MEET IN SAN FRANCISCO AND DRIVE OVER THE GOLDEN Gate Bridge to see a little-known, found art/curiosa headquarters in Mill Valley: an ideal Robbins’ oddity dubbed the Unknown Museum that features, among numerous bizarre attractions, an automobile entirely encrusted with sequins.

There are two immediate surprises in our meeting. The first is that Robbins—consummate counterculture novelist—is at least a couple of decades older than his hard-core following. But then he really doesn’t look to be into his forties: dressed in fluorescent green track shoes, blue jeans and faded work shirt, he is slim, well-proportioned and just a few inches and ten pounds over the category of “slight.” He has an immediately likable, diffident air that persists even with friends; a sense that he’s always a touch puzzled by his surroundings—even though it soon grows clear that he knows exactly what’s going on and just what he wants to have to do with it.

THE SECOND SURPRISE IS THAT BY THE TIME WE REACH MILL Valley, Robbins has managed to utter no more than five or six complete sentences.

My vision of the quick and clean Q&A evaporates in the Marin County sunshine. “I’m not sure,” Robbins says, “that I’m verbal enough to do a Q&A.”

I agree immediately. We’re both, I think, in a lot of trouble. He offers that he has just spent the morning with a writer from People, and that during those three hours had done more talking than he had done, in total, during the previous three months. He was burned out. “You know,” he says softly as we pull into Mill Valley, “I don’t think we can do this sitting in a hotel room.”

FOUR WEEKS LATER I DRIVE INTO THE SMALL PUGET SOUND community, an hour and a half north of Seattle, that Robbins has called home for seven years. It is a tiny town, population 650, and surrounded by one of the largest tulip-growing regions on the planet; an area that exports bulbs even to Holland. Each year the fields briefly blaze with color—red, white, yellow, variegated. Briefly, because the blooms are cut as quickly as possible, lest they rob energy from the more profitable bulbs below.

Robbins lives in the heart of town, in a tiny, well-weathered house set back from a narrow side street. The front porch is reached by means of a series of massive granite stepping-stones, and the porch itself is almost totally obscured by an aged, thick-set maple.

The town—favored decades ago by a group of painters—is now in transition to a more costly resort for well-heeled weekenders and, in turn, a hangout for longhaired artisans. Longtime residents can be heard to complain that the place is getting to be just a bit too much like Woodstock during the summers.

Robbins tries not to notice. His house is one of the oldest in town—nearly 100 years—and his writing studio is a house trailer, constructed by a Boeing Company employee and now permanently perched in Robbins’ backyard. When Robbins writes, he locks himself into the trailer and hangs a warning sign on the gate. And if summer visitors inquire as to his whereabouts, the locals simply reply that he’s gone to, say, Arabia.

“Then the person goes home to L.A. or Missouri,” Robbins says, “and writes me to say that ‘I came to your house, but you were in Arabia.’ I get the letter, but I never know who told them that.”

Tom Robbins is a cult writer. And while he doesn’t know exactly how that’s defined, he knows what it means. It means, for starters, at least four long letters each day from fans, many of whom aver that Robbins’ writing has changed their lives. “It’s a little embarrassing, and kind of scary,” he says, “and you don’t know what to say in return. Do you know,” he wonders, “if Updike gets letters like that?”

Women write Robbins regularly to say that they are Amanda—earth-mother heroine of ARA—and that, moreover, they are coming to visit. And another generation is already under way: five or six people have already named their daughters Amanda, in honor of the character. Seven or eight commercial establishments have been named “Another Roadside Attraction,” ranging from a vegetable stand in Washington to a California yoga center.

But the final certification of Robbins’ cult status is that his fiction inspires offerings. They may come through the mail, they may be left at the door, but however they arrive, they are profuse. His house is already filled with myriad representations of hot dogs (a significant motif in ARA) in every medium from polyethylene and plaster to cookbooks and posters. The fallout from Cowgirls has just begun, but already it ranges from a bumper sticker that proclaims Cowgirls Need Loving Too to a cellophane package than hangs unopened over Robbins’ writing desk and contains a giant slip-on rubber thumb complete with gaudy red thumbnail, neatly titled “The Motorist’s Delight”—an apt representation of the thumbs that adorn Cowgirls‘ heroine.

“I’m going to have to be very careful what I write about in the future,” Robbins says. “I just hope I can stay ahead of them. I want to be permanently corruptive and subversive, but it’s really hard.”

ROBBINS’ LIVING ROOM, WHILE FULLY SIXTEEN FEET high, is nonetheless nearly overwhelmed by exceedingly healthy plants. In one corner, a hanging Boston fern enshrouds the back of a wicker chair. A wandering Jew trails down from the ledge of Robbins’ sleeping loft so profusely that it brushes the sofa ten feet below. In another corner, some manner of trailing plant has virtually engulfed the right channel speaker of the stereo. And in yet another corner, a spindly avocado has, in a prodigious feat, nearly touched the ceiling.

Did he start that from a pit? someone asks.

Robbins nods solemnly. About, he says, five years ago. He studies the plant for a moment, squinting up at the apex which now nearly brushes the ceiling. “I suppose,” he says, “that I’m going to have to figure out some way to pinch it off.”

It is a living room almost cinematically befitting the author of what is, very probably, the quintessential counterculture novel. And to have written such a novel is no small achievement—because from 1967 on, authors of every age and stripe have tried and failed to capture the special, elusive feel of the Sixties.

All seemed to founder on the same technical problem. The language and style of the counterculture was so fluid and so wired into the electronic media that by the time a novelist of manners depicted the manners, they had changed. Vocabulary had become passé, and the telling observation had turned embarrassingly obvious. It was enough to make young novelists wonder if McLuhan had been right; they seemed locked into a lively culture that defied successful novelization.

But then Tom Robbins came along. Robbins not only embraced the printed word—he positively smothered it with kisses. ARA, over 300 pages long, was almost nonstop wordplay. Similes and metaphors and personifications and free-handed analogies poured off the pages. And those literary pyrotechnics were wrapped around a collection of larger-than-life characters—from Amanda, the ultimate earth mother, to John Paul Ziller, a bizarre distillation of the stylish desires for primitive lifestyles. And those outlandish characters were deployed in an even more outlandish plot, involving, among other things, the discovery and theft of the body of Christ from the basement of the Vatican and its subsequent reappearance in a small roadside zoo in the American Northwest.

And, most outlandishly of all, the book actually worked. ARA begins with a meandering narrative that seems to promise more than it can possibly deliver—yet by the time fifty pages have passed, most readers are hooked.

Robbins’ success was his realization that the essence of the counterculture was not manners, but fantasy. And so, while ARA contains counterculture trappings galore—drugs, food, music, fashions, vocabulary—it takes each out to the edge of the mythology that, for one brief moment in the Sixties, looked almost possible.

The long cold Seventies have now cast a far more realistic light on that fantasy. But ARA was not, in the first place, a realistic novel. It has, in fact, very little to do with reality. And in the end, that is why it will probably remain the most realistic of the counterculture novels.

FANTASY IS, IN FACT, AT THE HEART OF BOTH ROBBINS’ life and work. “I’ve always wanted to lead a life of enchantment,” he says, “and writing is part of that. Magic is practical and pragmatic—it’s making connections between objects, or events, in the most unusual ways. When you do that, the universe becomes a very exciting place.

“I’m a romantic, and I don’t apologize for that. I think it’s as valid a way of looking at life as any. And a hell of a lot more fun.”

Someone in the room compares the level of reality in Robbins’ fiction to that of musical comedy—the reason that people like musical comedy, she says, is that in real life people don’t walk down the street and burst into song.

“Not only that,” Robbins says immediately, “but it promises that someday people are going to start bursting into song when they walk down the street. People like it because they wish they could do it. And I think they will do it.”

ONCE TOM ROBBINS WAS CAUGHT IN A TELEPHONE BOOTH on the Lower East Side of New York City, surrounded by thugs who clearly meant him harm. His call didn’t go through, but he faked a conversation for at least half an hour, waiting for the thugs to depart. They didn’t. Finally it got ridiculous—his arm had even fallen asleep—so he hung up the telephone, rushed out of the booth and started shaking the first thug’s hand, pumping it up and down and asking, in slightly hysterical tones, “Do you believe in angels?” He rushed over to the second thug, and then the third, repeating the performance. “Do you believe in angels?” The thugs, says Robbins, were so taken aback by this performance that they promptly turned and walked away.

Robbins shared that Lower East Side neighborhood with several indigenous gangs, and one day, while he was walking down the street, he saw a group of Puerto Rican teenagers writing “Duchmen” on a wall.

Robbins walked over, grabbed the chalk, and corrected the spelling. “Oh boy,” he thought then, “spontaneity can get you in a lot of trouble.” But the gang members simply said “thank you,” and soon thereafter Robbins became something of a street-gang cultural arbiter. “These guys hang around in doorways looking threatening,” he says, “but they’re really talking about a lot of things.

AFTER A DAY OR SO IN WASHINGTON, IT GROWS CLEAR that stories like the above are standard Robbins fare—and if, in the midst of them, one occasionally questions their verisimilitude, in the end it really doesn’t matter. Most fiction writers tend to embroider reality a bit, and more often than not, outrageously.

And Robbins’ anecdotes are hardly outrageous. In fact—for all his emphasis on spontaneity—one soon suspects that Robbins’ personal revelations are not exactly off-the-cuff. Robbins talks only when he feels like talking—and even then, in the same brand of well-turned sentence and apt phrase that marks his prose. He continues to apologize for the fact that he is not articulate—that’s why, he says, he writes—but it seems more the case that he only articulates when he feels like it—and when he’s certain about what’s going to come out.

“I don’t think writers should talk anyway,” he says, and then mentions a recent Nobel Prize winner. “Look at him—ever since he won that award he’s been spouting off like some junior college professor on beer and diet pills. He’s said that people in our culture should stop listening to intellectuals. Since when have people listened? There hasn’t been an intellectual in a position of leadership in this country since Thomas Jefferson. Since Andrew Jackson, in fact, the government has been entirely in the hands of hillbillies and yokels and urban thugs. So who are these intellectuals we’re supposedly listening to?”

Apparently not literary critics—because best-selling Robbins has been treated, thus far, less than kindly by the book review establishment. ARA netted good reviews in only a handful of publications, and while Cowgirls was more widely reviewed, it received more sneers than raves.

Robbins doesn’t seem concerned. He tells a story about a former girlfriend who, in the midst of walking down the street, turned abruptly and announced that “the trouble with you, Tom, is that you have too much fun.”

Robbins suspects that the literary establishment feels the same way. At one point I mention a highly praised novel by an East Coast academic novelist. Robbins shakes his head. The problem, he says, was that it wasn’t funny.

But it wasn’t supposed to be funny, I say. That was the point.

Robbins shakes his head again, almost as if puzzled. “But if there’s any wisdom in it, it’s bound to be funny.”

Critics complain, he says, that he doesn’t write about rootlessness, despair, sexual frustration—but what’s wrong, he wonders, “with writing about joy? Why is that any less serious?”

According to Robbins, one book review editor at a major newsweekly refused to review Cowgirls altogether—because he could not take it seriously as literature. (The editor subsequently said he decided not to review it because no one on the staff thought it sufficiently interesting.)

“Well,” Robbins shrugs, “this delights me, and there’s no sour grapes there. If I’m not writing literature, then I don’t have the burden of a literary past on my shoulders. I’m free to do whatever I want. And I’m very comfortable in that role.”

ON OUR FIRST AFTERNOON IN TOWN, ROBBINS DRIVES US out to a small beach facing the fir-covered islands that dot Puget Sound. We sit, eating a garlicked cheese washed in Idaho river water (that Robbins swears was once the favorite of western badmen), drinking Rainier Ale and watching Tom’s young son, Fleetwood, sink plastic superhero figures into the mushy tan sand at water’s edge.

With inexorable Rainier-fueled logic, the conversation proceeds directly to psychedelics. “July 16th, 1963,” Robbins says, “was the most rewarding day of my life, because that was the first day I took acid.”

In those days, Robbins was newly engaged in hunting edible mushrooms in the forests around Seattle. At about the same time, Holiday magazine published an article describing the peculiar consciousness-expanding properties of a mushroom called Psilocybe.

Robbins was curious, and so he approached an older woman in Olympia, with whom he had hunted fungi and who had, moreover, written a mushroom guidebook. “She looked exactly like Margaret Rutherford,” he says. “Knee socks and tweed skirts, and she didn’t want to have anything to do with psychedelic mushrooms.”

She suggested, however, a nearby university professor conversant with the subject. That professor demurred also, but referred Robbins to a pharmacology professor.

This was pay dirt. The pharmacology professor was an amateur painter, and at the time Robbins was an art critic. They met for lunch, and finally Robbins popped the question.

Forget the mushrooms, the professor answered. There’s something else, called LSD-25.

Okay, said Robbins, if I can’t have peach pie I’ll take apple. Not so fast, said the professor. This is strong stuff and I need to know you better.

So they met for lunch again, and then the third time they met at a local gallery and the professor passed on three tablets of what was then perfectly legal Sandoz LSD.

Robbins ate, sat down in a chair, and didn’t move again for eight hours, except to visit the bathroom. “And that,” he says, “was an odyssey.”

“It was so intense that for the first time in my life I couldn’t read. I taught myself to read when I was five, because I loved books so much. But all of a sudden I had no interest in either reading or writing. That lasted for about six months, and then I read Steppenwolf, and it was the first thing that made any sense at all.”

Why?

Robbins smiles. “Hesse has denied that he had any knowledge of psychedelics, but I’m not convinced. I’ve heard there was a castle in Switzerland where Paul Klee, the painter, and Henri Michaux, the painter and poet—along with several noblemen and noblewomen—used to gather and eat mescaline, I think in the Thirties. And Hesse was around that area and he was a friend of Klee’s.”

Robbins stares out at Puget Sound briefly. “And so I’m almost certain,” he says. “Hesse had to be in on that.”

IN THE PUBLISHING TRADE, TOM ROBBINS IS KNOWN as a phenomenon—a designation which refers not to the nature of his writing, but rather to its marketing.

In 1971, Another Roadside Attraction was published in hardcover by Doubleday and met, as one trade journal politely put it, “an indifferent public.” What that meant was that by late 1975, when the hardcover edition went out of print, it had sold only 2200 of the 5000 that had been printed. Even for a first novel, this is the kind of performance that disheartens publishers.

But even as the hardcover version of ARA was crashing and burning, a remarkable thing was happening to the Ballantine paperback edition: it was slowly but surely, with the benefit of nothing but word-of-mouth advertising, starting to sell like crazy on campuses and in any city where long haired, drug-consuming young people gathered. Selling so well, in fact, that by now the paperback of ARA has sold over half a million copies.

While ARA was starting to soar in paperback, Tom Robbins was at home in Washington, working on a second novel and sufficiently destitute that much of his nutrition derived from midnight raids on local truck farms. One might well think that some astute publisher would have noticed the curious marketing pattern on Robbins’ first book and the significant lesson it offered. But it was, finally, Robbins’ literary agent who approached Bantam Books and offered to sell them paperback rights to the unfinished second novel.

Selling paperback rights to a “serious” novel before hardcover rights had been sold was unconventional, but Bantam went for it—resulting in an advance sufficient to see Robbins through the book ultimately titled Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.

By the time Cowgirls was completed, Robbins had, by means of the paperback ARA, become an underground celebrity. Anyone who had read ARA was, almost certainly, enthusiastically awaiting the second Robbins novel. And so Bantam decided to approach some hardcover publishing houses with the rights to Cowgirls. There was, clearly, some money to be made out there.

But almost no one was interested. For starters, the whole deal turned the traditional publishing hierarchy—hardcover first, then paperback a year or so later—upside down. “They said,” according to Ted Solotaroff, Robbins’ influential young Bantam editor, “that they’d like to sell it to Bantam, not buy it from Bantam.”

But at last a Boston house, Houghton Mifflin, agreed to publish both a small hardcover edition (still necessary to attract the attention of book reviewers and to fill library orders) along with a “quality” or “trade” paperback edition—a midsized book, on nice stock, with a heavy paper cover and a price considerably below hardcover.

It was the first time Houghton Mifflin had done such a thing, but it will likely not be the last. By the time Bantam published their mass-market edition of Cowgirls—a smaller version at $2.25—Houghton Mifflin had already moved 170,000 $4.95 Cowgirls. And that’s not bad business. Past that, there’s little to add, besides the fact that Bantam has already purchased rights to Robbins’ third novel.

DOES TOM ROBBINS HAVE A LIFE PLAN, I WONDER? Some kind of career set out?

Robbins hesitates. “Not really. If I ever started to think about writing being my career, it would probably stop being fun.” He pauses again. “Someday,” he says, “I’d like to be a photographer and take still lifes of small toys.”

The next day he adds an amendment. He would also like to open a roadside zoo, and while it would necessarily be cheap and tawdry, he would also have two young mathematics prodigies on view, who would stage math contests three times a day.

TOM ROBBINS WAS RAISED IN THE SOUTH, WHERE, BY the time he was a teenager, he’d been pulled out of public school on the grounds of general naughtiness and sent to a military academy that bore the motto “Making Men Not Money.” Robbins graduated directly into Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia—a Southern gentleman’s school often called the Princeton of the South.

Robbins lasted two years at Washington and Lee, until “it finally became apparent that I didn’t have the makings of a Southern gentleman”—having, among other transgressions, already been ejected from his fraternity for throwing biscuits at the housemother. Robbins went on the road—hitchhiking and doing construction work—and finally ended up, at age twenty, in Greenwich Village.

He wanted to be a poet. “Which was really pretty laughable. Here I was, twenty years old, from a little town in the South. My pants cuffs were probably way above my ankles, and I thought an Alexandrian couplet was something from which Egyptian babies drank.”

Robbins spent his first tenure in New York trying to decide whether to become a beatnik or an advertising man, until the federal government finally suggested a compromise in the form of avoiding the draft by enlisting in the Air Force.

The Air Force taught him meteorology and then sent him to South Korea to teach it to the South Korean Air Force.

“But the South Korean Air Force had no interest whatsoever in meteorology,” Robbins says. “If they came to a thunderstorm, they’d fly right through it. No circumnavigation at all; it wasted gas. So we operated a black-market ring instead, dealing in soap and toothpaste and cigarettes. Later I found out that most of it was going into Red China, so I figure that for about thirteen months I was supplying Mao Tsetung with all his Colgate.”

After the Air Force, Robbins went to an art school that no longer exists. “I went back there, summer before last, and all three places I’d lived were parking lots. Two places where I lived in Seattle are now parking lots. I feel like someone is going around behind me with an eraser. I just hope they don’t catch up.”

From art school, Robbins went to work for a Richmond, Virginia, newspaper. “They were very conservative,” he says, “and kept their foot on my head pretty well. They wouldn’t let me write anything but headlines.”

But then a movie star intervened, in the unlikely form of Sammy Davis Jr. “One of my duties at the paper was to edit the Earl Wilson column. Every day I had to pick someone he’d mentioned and go in the library and get a photograph of them, so there’d be a little picture in the column each morning.

“One day, without thinking, I chose Louis Armstrong—hell, everybody loves Louis Armstrong, right? But not in Richmond, Virginia, in the early Sixties. They got some really nasty letters about it, and the managing editor called me in and said: ‘Don’t run any more gentlemen of color.’

“Well, I thought about that for a couple of weeks and, as I’m a generally rebellious person, I finally slipped in Nat ‘King’ Cole. And this time they got very angry, and I got very chewed out. “I waited a couple of months more, until I decided that it was time to get out of the South. It just so happened that on that particular day, I read the Earl Wilson column and he mentioned Sammy Davis Jr.—who had just married a Scandinavian actress.

“Perfect. I slipped him in, and that was that. Two weeks later I left for Seattle.”

ON THE DAY WE ARRIVE AT ROBBINS’ HOUSE, A millionairess from the Southwest is buried in her Ferrari. Robbins—who seems to collect this kind of lore like a magnet—merely nods at the news. “Good hunting,” he says, “for the archaeologists of the future.”

How, someone wonders, would Robbins like to depart? Robbins doesn’t hesitate.

“I would like to be shot out of a circus cannon, like the Great Zacchini, into an open grave. I’d like streamers of flowers tied to my feet, and everybody sitting around the open grave eating watermelon.”

And someone selling popcorn?

Robbins shakes his head seriously, emphatically. “No commercialism.”

SO HOW DID A NAIVE SOUTHERN BOY WIND UP IN Washington?

“Seattle was the farthest place from Richmond on the map without leaving the country. And I couldn’t afford to leave the country.”

Robbins studies me briefly, from the corner of his eye, to determine whether I’m content with that answer.

“That wasn’t the total reason,” he continues after a moment. “I’d studied in art school about Morris Graves and Mark Tobey and the other painters from this area, who were collectively called mystic. And I was intrigued about what kind of landscape could produce a school of mystic painters.

“It was a wise choice. Everybody else I knew who left the South for the West came to San Francisco. I was obstinate enough not to do that. Seattle is really a sweetheart of a city, and because I was from the East, and they were self-conscious about their culture, I found I could do anything I wanted.”

Robbins drove into town on a Friday night and the next Tuesday started working at a local paper, reviewing everything from painting and sculpture to opera, symphony, ice shows, circuses, hootenannies and rodeos. Robbins was really only qualified in painting and sculpture, but he leapt into the other areas with such gusto that the conductor of the Seattle Symphony soon invited him to a dinner party just to see what sort of person could get so worked up about Rossini. “Actually,” Robbins says, “the only reason I liked Rossini was because he looked so much like Robert Mitchum.”

“I LOVE IT,” ROBBINS SAYS, “WHEN PEOPLE SAY the novel’s dead, because I feel so free—sort of necrophiliac.”

If it’s dead, it can’t hurt you.

“That’s right. You can just have fun with it. And it can’t hurt you, either.”

But Robbins, obviously, doesn’t really think the novel is dead. “Shaw said fifty years ago that the future of the novel depended on how well it transcended the tyranny of plot. Since then, lots of people have written boring, plotless novels that only the friends of the authors have read.

“But then Brautigan came along and wrote Trout Fishing in America, which had no plot, no character development, none of the things that are taught as necessary to the novel—and yet for many people it was as hard to put down as a suspense thriller. I think that was a real milestone in Western literature.

“My books have plot but they don’t depend on plot, and I think this is important. If you’re only interested in plot, it’s much easier to go to TV or the movies.”

AS A TRANSPLANTED VIRGINIAN, ROBBINS DID ART criticism for the Seattle Times for two and half years—and then, following his encounter with the psychedelic products of the Sandoz firm, he quit, in rather the same fashion as the young psychiatric intern Dr. Robbins quits his job in Cowgirls: “I called in well one day. ‘What do you mean, well?’ Well, I’ve been sick ever since I’ve been working there, and now I’m well, and I won’t be coming in anymore.”

Robbins returned to New York and the Lower East Side, and chipped away at a book on Jackson Pollock. But after a year or so, he found himself reading Sometimes a Great Notion while lying on a cot in his tenement. “I started to hear the raindrops beating on the ferns,” Robbins says, and shortly thereafter he was back in Seattle.

In Seattle he wrote an art column for Seattle Magazine—a space over which he ranged freely, ultimately including, among other things, neon signs, posters and greeting cards.

Robbins considers those columns his first good criticism, and indeed they led, in short order, to a letter from Luther Nichols, the West Coast editor for Doubleday.

“I’ve always had this fantasy,” Robbins says, “of going to the mailbox and taking out this letter and having it change my life.” In retrospect, Luther Nichols’ letter probably qualifies, because Nichols had a simple question: was Robbins interested in writing a book?

Robbins was, indeed, but when the two met, it became clear that Nichols was interested in a book about art. Robbins said he was more interested in writing a novel. Nichols asked what that novel might be about. And then Robbins launched into a description of a bizarre story involving the theft of Christ’s body from the Vatican catacombs.

That sounds intriguing, Nichols said. When can I see it?

Robbins told him it was still a little rough—and promptly went home and started writing.

“NATURE IS TANTRIC,” ROBBINS SUGGESTS ONE afternoon as we’re driving north in his convertible. “The water on earth exists because hydrogen, with only one electron, is lonely and needs oxygen.”

The observation leads promptly to a discussion of the chemical concept of oxidation-reduction reactions, and Robbins listens carefully to an explanation of that process from the science student in the car. “So is that what bonds hydrogen and oxygen?” he asks finally.

“No,” says the science student. “That’s when charge is transferred between two atoms.”

“They are in love?” Robbins wonders.

“Well,” she says, with some hesitation, “it’s like they both need something. One has too much and one has too little.”

Robbins nods, satisfied. “That’s what I said.”

WHEN ROBBINS RECEIVED HIS ADVANCE CHECK FOR ARA, he quit his job and went to Japan to see the famous white cranes. He was disappointed. The entrance to the reserve was in the center of the largest Coca-Cola billboard he’d ever seen.

Mt. Fuji was an immense pile of Fanta grape cans. “And,” Robbins says, nodding toward the photographer in the room, “you’d save a lot of money on developing film in Tokyo. You’d just have to hang it out on the line overnight. The air is photochemical.”

Near the end of his visit to Japan, Robbins walked into a Zen temple and asked the caretaker if he could meet the priest. “There’s no priest here anymore,” the caretaker replied, and only after Robbins departed did he realize the caretaker was the priest.

“JUNG,” ROBBINS SAYS, SAID THE ONE THING all his patients had in common was the lack of spiritual life. Maybe the lack of a real spiritual life is why the West is so neurotic. (Although we’re no more neurotic than the East anymore—Japan’s worse.)

“After some investigation, I was flabbergasted to find that Christianity isn’t really our religious heritage—paganism is. And it all stopped somewhere back about 4000 years ago—or at least the matriarchies did. Paganism didn’t really stop until the birth of Christ.

“I think maybe the carnival—the kind they had in the rural South—and the circuses, were really the last vestiges of pagan celebrations. A dull, boring, vacant lot would suddenly fill with these strange people, and tents and banners and flags, and that night it would light up with neon. It was a magical transformation, and I loved it.

“I really believe I’m a pagan at heart, and when this next book is finished, I plan to go to the British Isles and devote a couple of years to Nordic and pre-Anglo Saxon paganism.

“I don’t believe in going back—I think that retreat into the past is both sentimental and dangerous. But I think we left something back there—the thread of identity, perhaps—which we might go back and pick up again.”

‘EVEN COWGIRLS GET THE BLUES’ IS THE STORY OF SISSY Hankshaw, a young woman gifted with outsized thumbs that immediately earn her a place in the pantheon of great American hitchhikers. But the thumbs also create considerable difficulty for Sissy, and after much personal travail, she joins a group of self-sufficient cowgirls on their ranch in the Dakotas—only to find herself involved in the benign kidnapping of the last remaining flock of whooping cranes.

Cowgirls has received far more attention, and far more criticism, than ARA. Many readers feel that Cowgirl wanders too far from the leisurely plotting that made ARA a gentle, but irresistible, page turner—and that Robbins’ stylistic flamboyance has crossed over into self-indulgence.

The consistent exception to that reaction is among women. Women, rather more than men, appreciate Cowgirls, and that’s probably only fair—because Tom Robbins, clearly, appreciates women.

Robbins is a connoisseur of the female, in the nicest sense, and it is in fact difficult to keep precise track of the various women who populate Robbins’ life story. “I’m much closer to women than to men,” he says. “It’s easier to be playful with women, because women aren’t under the pressure that men are to be serious—because we all know they’re dumb, and etcetera…” The narrator’s unrequited yet unstinting love for earth-mother Amanda in ARA seems pure Robbins—and in the last paragraph of that book, Amanda’s ambiguous deification reads almost as a twist on the old joke about the fellow who’s seen God: “Well, first of all, she‘s….”

Before Fleetwood was born, Robbins hoped dearly for a girl—afraid that he would find it difficult to relate to a boy. Robbins had even selected girls’ names—the leading contender, as he recalls, being Cinema. When the nurse told him the baby was male, Robbins cried.

But it’s clear that a special bond has developed between Robbins and Fleetwood, who is now six. “He was my Zen master,” Robbins says. “They can do that, you know. At about four months or so, they start making these motorboat sounds.” Robbins smiles. “Beautiful music.”

Robbins no longer lives with Fleetwood’s mother, but they share joint custody. Now, Robbins says, he always wants to have a child around—and he finally understands why Picasso was still making babies at seventy.

“MY MOTHER HAS STORIES THAT I WROTE WHEN I WAS FIVE,” Robbins says, “that I dictated to her in a Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs scrapbook. She still has it in her cedar chest.

“I found one of those stories recently. I can’t remember the title, but it was about a pilot who crashed on a desert island, and there was a cow on the island. A brown cow, with yellow spots.

“The pilot was starving to death, because there wasn’t anything to eat. So he considered eating the cow. But he had actually gotten to like the cow so well that he couldn’t eat it. And so they trained themselves to eat sand together, and they lived on as friends.

“I wouldn’t find that story out of place in what I’m doing now, and so I guess I haven’t changed all that much. I had a very rich fantasy life as a child. And I still do as an adult.”

WHILE ROBBINS IS THE PERFECT HOST DURING OUR PUGET Sound stay, it’s clear by the end our visit that he’s said everything he’s going to say.

We occupy his living room for three or four additional hours, but during those hours the people talking are the visitors. Robbins listens with interest, but he shows little tendency to reciprocate.

Finally we excuse ourselves and go out onto the street, to walk down the hill to our inn. Robbins follows us out, and farewells are exchanged. And it’s only then—once we’ve passed over the granite stepping stones, stooped under the boughs of the massive maple, and stepped out onto the tiny side street—that Robbins deploys his parting line.

“Listen,” he calls from the porch. “You can tell people that my goal is to write novels that are like a basket of cherry tomatoes—when you bite into a paragraph, you don’t know which way the juice is going to squirt.”

I pause briefly on the dusty Washington street. That’s a transparently obvious, carefully prepared closing quote—delivered, moreover, just at the closing. And despite the fact that I kind of like it, I resolve firmly that I’m simply not going to use it in this story.

In This Article: Coverwall

Show Comments

Newswire

Powered by
Close comments

Add a comment