Heroine Addict Creates Perfect Fix as Dear Abby Meets Born-Again Virgin
By Peter O. Whitmer

From Gadfly Nov./Dec. 2000


It is early morning in the British West Indies.  The volcano-studded island of Montserrat is awash in slanted sunlight. Called "the Emerald Isle," it glitters with a thousand shades of green. One color is that of a cold bottle of Heinekens that Tom Robbins hopes might provide the necessary courage to navigate a right-hand drive, stick-shift vehicle over a narrow, twisting, pothole riddled strip of macadam.

Pulling away from a tricky intersection, he hears a man's voice. It is shouting. At him. The next thing he knows, the shouting stranger is pounding on the trunk of his car, commanding him to pull over. It is definitely not an admiring fan. Robbins stops. In full neo-Colonial Police regalia, the man approaches the driver.

"I immediately began to hum 'just send my mail to the Montserrat jail,'" Robbins said. "I handed the officer my beer. It was still half full. He said, 'no thanks,' and gave it back. It turned out there is no law on Montserrat against drinking and driving. The Policeman had caught me from behind, on foot—barefoot, too. What had snagged his attention was that I was driving ... on the wrong side of the road."

Tom Robbins has spent his entire creative life driving on the wrong side of the road. If the metaphor is apt, the readers will be rapt. Since the late 1960's, he has consistently and continuously barked at conventional wisdom, snapped and snarled against life's hide-bound traditions, all the while offering up plate after plate of delectably odd ball and inversely appropriate alternatives to life in the 20th Century. However, here we are in a new Millennium, perhaps demanding a new approach to life.  What to do, Mr. Robbins, what to do indeed?

It seems a little deep into the innings of his literary game—his seventh novel is freshly birthed—to make any serious career moves. In fact, any "move" at all for this author is considered "serious." He has stated that "...the writer's first obligation is to the many-tongued beast, language; were it not for language there would be no society. Social action on a political, economic level is wee potatoes. Our great human adventure is evolution of consciousness. We are in this life to enlarge the soul and light up the brain."

Nevertheless, there are thousands of college sophomores—around the world—who will read the title, Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates, and see the flaming wheelchair on the dust jacket. Then, some might think, "Oh, cool! It must be the saga of a phat female four-wheeled biker from Paraguay racing paraplegics for pink slips on the mean streets of Seattle." Wrong, dudes. Forget about Phi Beta Kappa, dudettes.

Their college professors, on the other hand, will read the same title and know immediately: here is a line from Arthur Rimbaud's vivid, surrealistic, politically incorrect, intellectually provocative, and thoroughly memorable work, A Season in Hell. Regardless, both student and professor—and plumbers and lobstermen and waitresses—will read the book with relish, and find themselves strapped on board for 415 pages like a starved hobo who just hopped the Midnight Zephyr passing through town at one-hundred-seven miles per hour. Even though the book's whipsaw signature phrase is "Peeple of zee wurl, relax!" the reader cannot. Hang on, they must: they will attach themselves to it like a big literary teat and suck dry a new universe of wonder and thrill and anarchy and hope. This train is loaded.

A few truly sharp professors might even know the poem's next line: "I think I will become engaged in politics." This is the intention, the hope of Tom Robbins for the message that his baby book will carry forth out of the shadowy half-light of the early dawn of the 21st Century. Not "traditional" politics, for that is the land of "the virtually alive," but rather the politics of consciousness, where pen and paper create new thoughts and vivid images—and action—that slays the ultimate enemy, the tyranny of the dull mind.

Robbins' use of Fierce Invalids as the arcane title belies the book's relevance: it is time to realize that it is not necessary to be sick in order to get better. It has become perversely vogue to become a victim. For a culture to spend time glued to TV shows such as Maury Povitch, or Jerry Springer, in worship of perdition, sin and poor self-esteem is to bark up a dead tree of knowledge. For this cultural malaise, Robbins offers Fierce, a 415-page amalgam of anarchy and beauty, humor and preaching, sexual squishiness and intellectual provocation. The genre may be fiction, but the inspiration is Robbins' life itself. "Readers are sick and tired of the endless line of books on dysfunctional people, dysfunctional families," he states, and refers to the Christmas holidays as "...the Family Stabbing Season." He cites a friend's recovery from a life-threatening illness as not due to traditional cures, nor to all the New Age self-help books others offered but went unread. "She watched re-runs of old Tarzan movies, and listened to the Beatles. She was cured by Johnny Weismuller, accompanied by the music of the '60's."

Even "contrarian" authors can have conventional roots. Born in North Carolina, where Grandfathers on both sides of his family were Baptist Preachers, his mother named him for her favorite author, Thomas Wolfe. Even his middle name was taken from Wolfe's autobiographical character, "Eugene." Regardless, most mainstream reviewers, and readers of the "traditional" novel are dismissive, if not downright disdainful of his writing. A New York Times reviewer said of his fourth book, Skinny Legs and All, "...reading this makes one think fleetingly that there might still be a few people out there who did not go directly from Woodstock to getting an MBA."

So what? Robbins is more proud of having created traditions all his own, rather than abiding by those handed down from generation to generation. He notes some lesser known facts surrounding his first book, Another Roadside Attraction, where the mummified body of Christ suddenly appears in America at roadside zoo. Robbins hammers home the point that while "driving on the wrong side of the road" is clearly a dangerous style, and not one he would patently recommend, it also has benefits. The book was anointed by Rolling Stone as "the quintessential 60's novel." "In Folsom Prison," Robbins says, "Tim Leary was given a copy by Sonny Barger; it was the Hell's Angels' all-time favorite book. Also," he continues, "did you know that Elvis Presley was reading Another Roadside Attraction the night he died? True. A copy of it was lying beside him on the bathroom floor. With Tim Leary, the Hell's Angels, and Elvis on your side, who the hell needs the New York Times?"


Slightly interesting, isn't it, that [Hunter] Thompson, [Ken] Kesey and I all have ties of sorts to the Hell's Angels. Such a thing simply could not happen on the East Coast. Can you imagine John Updike and Nora Ephron having connections to an outlaw biker gang?

Beneath the note is a stamp: a blue bunny sniffs at a posing Polynesian bathing beauty. "Aloha" floats above her like a cloud.  Such thought bursts have appeared in my mailbox with regularity over the years. They are more that just a joy to receive; they jog the mind into new territory and at a different tempo. They amuse, yes; but they inspire, indeed. These are the dots that become connected within the pages of his novels.  This is the way Robbins writes.  This is the way Robbins experiences the world.

Robbins is a purist among the legion of writers. He does not use e-mail, which he describes as "efficient, practical, and ugly.  It is the death of grammar. There is no room for nuance, so you lose shades of meaning. It is an electronic sticky note, wholly dependent on electrical power; the dinosaurs died so that chat rooms might flourish."

Instead, he chooses to write (or occasionally type) letters on his hand-created stationary, always sporting inventive, colorful oversized stamps as miniature canvases for his and others' works of art. His letters themselves are works of art, where ink is the paint, and paper is the canvas. "Ink is the blood, and paper is the flesh," he says.

Emerging from my mailbox is a letter from Robbins and a photo of Hunter S. Thompson wearing his signature aviators' sunglasses.  Robbins has doctored the photo by superimposing near Hunter's head a photo of the Dalai Lama, also balding, also wearing aviators' sunglasses.  He writes:

Attention POW:

The recent photographs attached hereto should convince you once and for all of the validity of my long-held conviction that Hunter S. Thompson and the Dalai Lama are one and the same person. Yes, it's clearly obvious! Thompson and his Holiness constitute the dark side and the light side of a single archetypal being.

Proof of my other contention—that Mr. Thompson has never in his life experienced LSD—must wait until a later date.

Yours in the Light of Truth,

"It is my intention to create an epistolary event when I write a letter, something in which the reader will become engaged, a lively event, hopefully of some significance." So, too, his books, where his writing style is done by hand, never uses even an outline, and involves use of "the laser beam of language, the intense focus, intense concentration that is why at the end of a writing day, I'm absolutely exhausted." Knowing this, my mailbox has been re-configured; it is now a Small Luxury Hotel for Epistolary Experiences.

At an early age, Robbins was offered the choice to write or not to write. It came shortly after winning a portable radio at a drawing held the last night of a touring carnival's performance in the small town of Blowing Rock, North Carolina. "My father warned me again and again that I had no chance of winning the radio, that I should guard against being disappointed. I knew I would win. Came time for the drawing and the first number pulled was for a ticket that had not been sold. They had to draw again. I won. My father and I walked home, playing music all the way."

A few weeks later, a travelling book salesman came through town. Robbins' mother had had a scholarship to study English at Columbia, and wrote stories for local Southern Baptist magazines; she mentioned to her young son that a girl down the street would pay him $25 for his radio. Then, he might use the money to buy books.

"I bought a copy of Huckleberry Finn, and an atlas of the world.  I have never been the same since. I poured over the atlas every day. And I would draw little houses on certain countries and I'd pretend that I lived there. I still consider Huckleberry Finn to be one of the greatest novels ever written. So you can see," he summarizes, "I made my choice early. It was books over technology way back then. I started writing when I was five years old."

Robbins still has his old Mark Twain classic. When Alexa, his wife of thirteen years, recently began reading it, she experienced something of an epiphany, saying, "This is Tom; now I know where you came from!"

At the center of the storm that is Fierce Invalids, Robbins has once again placed organized religion. More specifically, he has brought into focus the Roman Catholic Church, and the Third Prophecy of the Virgin Mary at Fatima, in 1917, held as a secret of the Vatican State until—coincidentally?—ten days before Robbins book was released. While the theme of poking fun at religion and man's mortality is a time-honored practice (Freud referred to religion as "the opiate of the masses"), few can continue to effectively carry this off across the decades, with Robbins' style of incisive mirth and provocative irony:

From: Another Roadside Attraction

Jesus: Hey, dad.
God: Yes, son?
Jesus: Western Civilization followed me home this morning. Can I keep it?
God: Certainly not, boy. And put it down this minute. You don't know where it's been.

From: Jitterbug Perfume

Wiggs Dannyboy: One last thing about death.
Pris: What's that? Wiggs Dannyboy: After you die, your hair and your nails continue to grow.
Pris: I've heard that.
Wiggs Dannyboy: Yes.  But your phone calls taper off.

From: Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climate

The God and Satan 'Divvy-up The World' List

Satan gets: New Orleans, Bangkok, French Riviera, Ice hockey and rugby, Stud poker, LSD, Oscar Wilde, The Dalai Lama, Harley motorcycyles, Andy Warhol, and James Joyce

God gets: Salt Lake City, Horseshoes and croquette, Bingo, Prozac, Neil Simon, Billy Graham, Golf carts, Andrew Wyeth and James Michener

More than likely, God would holler, "Whoa!  Wait just a minute here, Lucifer. I'll take the pool halls and juke joints; you take church basements and Boy Scout jamborees. You handle content for a change, pal. I'm going to take—style!"

The "style" Robbins prefers is clear. "I'm a romantic," he explains. "It gives you freedom and fluidity to move around in time and geography. If faced with the choice between 'function' and 'beauty,' I will always come down on the side of beauty."

Romance, spirituality, freedom, beauty, and the conundrum of mastering the art of moving quickly through time and space were themes imbedded in Robbins consciousness from the earliest days. For nine months of the year, growing up in Blowing Rock was "like Dogpatch. It was Appalachia all the way—impoverished, ignorant, populated by men who beat their wives and drank too much—a rather mean place, abounding with natural beauty and colorful characters, but violent, snake-bit and sorrowful all over."

During the summer months, however, the small town would be transformed into a country resort for the wealthy, with Rolls Royces lining the streets, glamorous people, and theaters playing first-run films. "The dichotomy between the rich, sophisticated scene and the hillbilly scene affected me very much," Robbins says. "It showed me how the ordinary suddenly could be changed into the extraordinary. And back again. It toughened me to harsh realities and instilled in me the romantic idea of another life. And it left me with an affinity for both sides of the tracks."

Another focal point of Robbins' early interest was a roadhouse outside of town, called The Bark. Robbins recalls, "At The Bark, folks drank beer and danced. Can you appreciate the fact that among fundamentalist Southern Baptists, drinking and dancing were major sins? My Mother taught a Baptist Sunday School class for people aged sixteen to twenty-three, and once a week, this class would meet at our house. The hottest item of gossip always involved The Bark. 'So-and-so was seen leaving The Bark Saturday night,' and so forth. Now I was a little kid—seven, eight, nine—while this was going on, but they made The Bark sound so attractive, so fascinating! All I wanted to do was grow up and go to The Bark, to drink beer, squeeze floozies, dance, get tattooed, smoke cigars and ride a motorcycle."

Before he was old enough to sample the pleasures of The Bark, Robbins' family moved to Burnsville, North Carolina. They lived on the edge of a vacant private school that would provide Robbins' introduction to magic—a theme that continues to permeate his writings. Tom would go to sleep one night with a view of the vacant schoolyard. He would awaken to the phenomenon of an oasis of flapping canvas tents, strange odors, weird animals, and exotic people: the Barnes and Beers Travelling Circus had slipped into town in the middle of his dreams.

"I was an eleven-year-old with an active imagination and went over right away to get a job so that I could get in free." He watered the llamas, set up the menagerie, and scraped moss off the back of a six-foot alligator. Then something else caught his eye: "I met Bobbie and just fell totally in love. She was the most exotic thing I had ever seen. She had waist-length brilliantly blonde hair. She wore black, patent leather riding boots and riding britches. She had this pet black snake and scars on her arm where it had bitten her. I have always been a romantic, one of those people who believes that a woman in pink circus tights contains all the secrets of the world."

Readers have come to know Amanda, setting up the flea circus in Another Roadside Attraction, and Sissy Hankshaw thumbing rides on a passing cloud in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. Now they have Sister Domino Thiry of The Order of St. Pachomius, Fierce Invalids' forty-somewhere born-again virgin, presenting her hero, Switters, with a Christmas present of a jug of the potent brew, arrack, and a jar of petroleum jelly. The theme of feminine insight to heavenly delight runs deep: Tom Robbins is a heroine addict.

The final piece of Robbins' worldview also fell into place at an impressionable age. As a child, his hero was Johnny Weismuller.  "Tarzan was my big hero. I sort of grew up going to the Southern Baptist Sunday school and felt that Jesus should be my hero.  But somehow, he never measured up to Tarzan, and I would go to Sunday school every Sunday and really try to get excited about Jesus, but he didn't move me. The latest Tarzan film would come around and I was 'up' for months. So I dealt with that in my first book, Another Roadside Attraction. I actually had a meeting between Tarzan and Jesus, trying to work that out."

This is the struggle, the tension within that keeps Robbins writing, reading, thinking, and travelling, often to 'hot climates.'  He quotes a line from Aldous Huxley in the fore page to his newest book:

"I want God, I want poetry,
I want danger, I want freedom,
I want goodness, I want sin."

Where might one go for a formal education to nurture and polish such a diamond in the rough? Oddly, first to Virginia's Hargrave Military Academy, then Washington and Lee University, whose moniker is "The Generals." At W & L, he worked as cub sports reporter for the campus newspaper, edited by Tom Wolfe, the Ring Tum Phi. "Ridiculous name," Robbins says. "It was kind of a ridiculous school. I didn't last long." A food fight at his fraternity house went harmlessly awry when he flipped an errant pea at another student; it went down the housemother's cleavage. Some of the fraternity brothers began berating Robbins, questioning his parentage. "I just reached over, picked up some biscuits, and started lobbing them at her.  Not to hurt her, but I sent this whole shower of biscuits. That was the end of my days there."

He lasted two weeks in the Air Force officer-candidate school then was assigned to study meteorology before being shipped off to Korea. "Korean pilots had very little interest in meteorology.  They would not circumnavigate storm systems. They would just fly right into them—that was their style. They were bored and I was bored, so we operated a black-market ring instead. Small stuff—cigarettes, cosmetics, and Colgate toothpaste. I had this fantasy that I was supplying Mao Zedong with his Colgate toothpaste."

Even after winning the enlisted men's Scrabble championship, Robbins was still the only member of his outfit not to receive a reenlistment lecture. He returned to the States, was introduced to the "wild, bohemian, romantic," world of the artist, got a degree in art at Richmond Professional Institute, then began work at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where he edited the syndicated gossip columnist, Earl Wilson, by inserting photos of mentioned celebrities. "One time without even thinking," Robbins says, "I put in a photo of Louis Armstrong. 'Satchmo.' Well, they got letters! They suggested to me that I should not put a 'gentleman of color' in the column. Of course it really annoyed me. Some months later I was feeling ornery. The column mentioned Nat King Cole, and I slapped ol' Nat in there." The editor warned Robbins the next slip would be his last.

A few weeks later, Robbins felt quite strongly "the tyranny of the dull mind." "On that particular day Earl Wilson mentioned Sammy Davis, Jr.  He was one of the most hated black celebrities because he had married a white woman. So I put ol' Sammy in there and just walked out. I didn't give them a chance to fire me. I turned in my resignation."

To get as far away from Richmond as possible, Robbins landed in Seattle, where he worked on the Seattle Times writing headlines for the "Dear Abby" column. His wit and wisdom, with an assist from his childhood hero, garnered the attention of the columnist herself, and a promotion to the job he really wanted, as Art Critic. "She came by the Seattle Times and asked if she could meet the person who was writing her headlines. She was syndicated in about one hundred and fifty newspapers and none of them had headlines like the ones in Seattle. Someone had written about Tarzan books being banned in California because Tarzan and Jane were not married. So my headline read, 'Did Tarzan Live Too High in Tree?'"

It was the early 1960's, cultural change was in the air, and Robbins' life began to move with fast and different rhythms.  Under the care of an enlightened physician, Robbins experienced LSD. He knew no one else who had had this experience, one so profound as to give him a new culture. "It was like being a Southern Baptist one day and a Russian Jew the next, so you don't relate to Southern Baptists anymore. I went looking for my people."

In New York City, while researching for some writing—never finished—on Jackson Pollock, he listened to a lecture given by then-Harvard Professor Timothy Leary. "I ran into Tim on the street after the talk he gave at Cooper Union. We were both at a vegetable stand, and I was buying brussel sprouts. He said, 'How can you tell the good ones?' I told him, 'You pick the ones that are smiling.'"

Robbins returned to Seattle, wrote for the underground newspaper, The Helix, became a disc jockey for a radio show, Rock and Roll for Big Boys and Girls (where he politely refused a guitar audition by Charles Manson), and began reviewing art for Seattle Magazine. An editor saw something unique in Robbins style, and asked if Robbins wanted to write a book, which he did, but not about West Coast art, which the editor wanted. Initially, both were disappointed, but then the editor asked what Robbins book was about.

"I said, 'Oh, it's about the discovery of the mummified body of Jesus Christ in the catacombs of the Vatican, its subsequent theft and reappearance in America in a roadside zoo.'"

This was an idea that Robbins had been kicking around in his mind since his childhood in North Carolina. Intrigued, the editor asked more about the plot. Robbins made it up as he went along, just to keep his interest. The editor then asked to see it. "I said it was in pretty rough form—I hadn't written a word. So I went home that day and told my girlfriend, 'I've got to start writing a novel.'"

The writing—his first attempt at fiction—began in 1968. While Robbins felt he had found his voice, few readers found his book—at first. It was not until Cowgirls was published in 1976, and its instant popularity pulled the first book along in its wake.  Now over two million copies of Another Roadside Attraction are in print.

Robbins' interest in the 60's, something he followed at the core level, came full circle in the late 1970's when he was at an outdoor book signing in Santa Monica, for Still Life with Woodpecker. It was night, spotlights stirred the sky, and a rock band played in typical L.A. fashion. But something else turned this into a strange spectacle. Robbins sat behind a very low table as he autographed books for a long line of people who would approach and kneel before him. "It really did look religious, and pretty soon there were fifteen or twenty Mexicans on the other side of a fence, drinking beer, watching this whole scene, trying to figure out if I was some renegade Pope. Every once in a while I would look over and kind of bless them. About half way through I looked over and standing against the fence was Tim Leary."

Fans continue to throng after Robbins like a soccer mob.  One of the numerous web sites dedicated to him (a Google search surfaced "about 103,000" hits) kept a daily count of the number of days since the release of his previous book, Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas. Readers' reactions along the recently completed six-week, worldwide author's tour indicate their wait was worthwhile. Robbins has done something unprecedented for them, in providing the first male protagonist. "Less estrogen, more testosterone," is how he describes the message carried by Robbins' "most autobiographical character," Switters, a well equipped 21st Century Renaissance man sure to pump up the pulse of male or female reader.

To begin with, Switters is an ex-rugby player (think organized anarchy), with degrees from the University of California at Berkeley (think Free Speech).  He joined the CIA, as it seemed a gang of amoral money-wasters operating outside of and above the law.  Always the renegade's renegade, his employment was severed when he was rendered inoperable—confined to a wheelchair from page 113 to 403—by the curse of an Amazonian shaman with a pyramid-shaped head, whose thesis is that civilized man's advances are attributable to the power of laughter. Switters escapes the Amazon, but not the curse, and lands in a Convent in Syria populated by women whose names include Maria Une, Maria Deux, PiPi, ZuZu, Mustang Sally, Fannie and Bob. With a ball of hashish in one hand, a solar powered laptop in the other, Switters keeps one eye on his evolutionary future, the other on every sensuous femme fatale to appear.  Here is a man of advanced intelligence; he can quote from Joyce's Finnegan's Wake and sing Broadway show tunes, shoot a Beretta, encrypt an e-mail, recite the word for "vagina" in seventy-one different languages, and charm the panties of a Nun. Actually, off of two Nuns, but not at the same time.

People of every demographic flocked to Robbins' signings. One couple asked him to autograph their small child's diapers. Another went further, asking him to sign a book "To: Can O' Beans," after the asexual and inanimate object, one of the cast of characters from Skinny Legs and All. "It turned out," Robbins said, shaking his head in disbelief, "the woman was pregnant, and they decided not to find out the baby's sex until birth. So, until then, they called it 'Can O' Beans.'"

It was the crowd in Sydney, Australia, who frightened—and rewarded Robbins the most, when he feared his end had come, rife with irony, in a mosh pit of frenzied nubility. He signed books standing behind a waist-high desk in a large conference room.  The crowd, primarily young women, grew in size and unruliness until the entire room was packed, and Robbins thought he would be cut in half at the waist, as they surged, pushing the desk and him into a wall.  "I expected to be crushed to death.  It was like the Beatles! At the last moment, I managed to push the desk back. I jumped on top of it and leaped into the audience. Then I danced my way, by hugging and kissing one girl after another, all the way to the door where I had a cab waiting.  I honestly feared for my life."

His wife, Alexa, his "wolf-eyed love-dumpling" had a different take on the scene and quipped, "Oh, you loved it, and you know it!"  Tom grinned sheepishly, knowing it was just another case of life imitating art, a perfect 'Switters moment.'"