Addict Creates Perfect Fix as Dear Abby Meets Born-Again
By Peter O. Whitmer
Gadfly Nov./Dec. 2000
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
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
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."
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?
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."
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.
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.
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
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."
"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."
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
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
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.
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."
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.
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:
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
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,
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
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."
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.
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."
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!"
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
Another Roadside Attraction
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.
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.
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
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!"
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."
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
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
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
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.'"
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.'"
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.
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.'"
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
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.'"