Robbins, Tom 1936–
Robbins, Tom 1936–
(Thomas Eugene Robbins)
PERSONAL: Born 1936, in Blowing Rock, NC; son of George T. and Katherine (Robinson) Robbins; married third wife, Alexa D'Avalon; children: (from previous relationships) Rip and Fleetwood Starr (sons). Education: Attended Washington and Lee University, 1950–52, Richmond Professional Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth University), and University of Washington.
ADDRESSES: Home—Box 338, LaConner, WA 98257. Agent—Phoebe Larmore, 228 Main St., Venice, CA 90291.
CAREER: Writer. Richmond Times-Dispatch, Richmond, VA, copy editor, 1960–62; Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Seattle, WA, copy editor, 1962–63; Seattle Magazine, Seattle, reviewer and art critic, 1964–68. Conducted research in New York City's East Village for an unwritten book on Jackson Pollock. Military service: U.S. Air Force; served in Korea.
Guy Anderson (biography), Gear Works Press, 1965.
Another Roadside Attraction (novel), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1971.
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (novel), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1976.
Still Life with Woodpecker (novel), Bantam (New York, NY), 1980.
Jitterbug Perfume (novel), Bantam (New York, NY), 1984.
Skinny Legs and All (novel), Bantam (New York, NY), 1990.
Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas (novel), Bantam (New York, NY), 1994.
Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates (novel), Bantam (New York, NY), 2000.
Villa Incognito, Bantam (New York, NY), 2003.
Contributed liner notes to Tower of Song: The Songs of Leonard Cohen (CD), 1995.
ADAPTATIONS: Even Cowgirls Get the Blues was adapted for film by Gus Van Sant and released by Fine Line Features, 1994.
SIDELIGHTS: For all his influence on the West Coast literary scene, Tom Robbins told the New York Times in 1993 that his relatively small output of novels (seven in a span of approximately thirty years) is based on the fact that "I try never to leave a sentence until it's as perfect as I can make it. So there isn't a word in any of my books that hasn't been gone over 40 times." Indeed, this attention to verbal effect has earned Robbins significant acclaim, even among critics who find fault with the offbeat humor, plotting, and philosophizing that have made his novels best-sellers.
Robbins began his career as a journalist, writing music and art reviews for newspapers in Richmond, Virginia, and Seattle. He moved to the Pacific Northwest to escape the cultural conservatism of the South and a family he described, in a BookPage interview, as "kind of a Southern Baptist version of The Simpsons." He wholeheartedly embraced the 1960s-era experimentation he found on the West Coast, and allegedly was inspired to try his hand at fiction after using LSD, which he once told a reporter for Rolling Stone was the most rewarding experience of his life. His first novel, Another Roadside Attraction, appeared in 1971, but sold poorly until it was issued in paperback; when college students discovered this novel about the mummified corpse of Jesus stolen from the Vatican and displayed in an American roadside zoo, they were hooked. Robbins became "the biggest thing to hit the 'youth market' in years," according to New York Times Magazine reporter Mitchell S. Ross. Robbins' popularity among young readers, most critics agree, can be attributed to the fact that his novels encompass the counter-cultural "California" or "West Coast" school of writing, whose practitioners also include the likes of Ken Kesey and Richard Brautigan. In the words of R.H. Miller, writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, the West Coast school emphasizes "the themes of personal freedom, the pursuit of higher states of being through Eastern mysticism, the escape from the confining life of urban California to the openness of the pastoral Pacific Northwest. Like the writings of his mentors, Robbins' own novels exhibit an elaborate style, a delight in words for their own sake, and an open, at times anarchical, attitude toward strict narrative form."
All of these qualities are evident in the author's first novel, Another Roadside Attraction. In this story, a collection of eccentrics with names like Plucky Purcell and Marx Marvelous become involved with the mummified body of Jesus Christ, which somehow ends up at the Capt. Kendrick Memorial Hot Dog Wildlife Preserve, formerly Mom's Little Dixie Diner. As Ross saw it, the novel's plot "is secondary to the characters and tertiary to the style. [These characters] are nothing like your next-door neighbors, even if you lived in Haight-Ashbury in the middle '60s." Jerome Klinkowitz, digging deeper into the novel's meaning, declared in his book, The Practice of Fiction in America: Writers from Hawthorne to the Present, that in Another Roadside Attraction, Robbins "feels that the excessive rationalization of Western culture since [seventeenth-century philosopher Rene] Descartes has severed man from his roots in nature. Organized religion has in like manner become more of a tool of logic and control than of spirit. Robbins' heroine, Amanda, would reconnect mankind with the benign chaos of the natural world, substituting magic for logic, style for substance, and poetry for the analytical measure of authority." Klinkowitz also found that the author is "a master of plain American speech … and his greatest trick is to use its flat style to defuse the most sacred objects."
Robbins followed Another Roadside Attraction with what would become, perhaps, his best-known novel. In Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, the author "shows the same zest of his earlier book, but the plot is focused and disciplined, mostly because Robbins had learned by this time to use the structure of the journey as a major organizing principle in the narrative," according to Miller. This tale concerns one Sissy Hankshaw, an extraordinary hitchhiker due mainly to the fact that she was born with oversized thumbs. One of her rides takes her to the Rubber Rose Ranch, run by Bonanza Jellybean and her cowgirls, "whom Sissy joins in an attempt to find freedom from herself, as she participates in their communal search for that same freedom," Miller related. "They yearn for an open, sexual, unchauvinistic world, much like that of the Chink, a wizened hermit who lives near the ranch and who has absorbed his philosophy of living from the Clock people, a tribe of Indians, and from Eastern philosophy."
Again, plot takes a backseat to the intellectual forces that drive the characters. To Nation critic Ann Cameron, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues showed "a brilliant affirmation of private visions and private wishes and the power to transform life and death. A tall tale and a parable of essential humanness, it is a work of extraordinary playfulness, style and wit." In his study, Tom Rob-bins, author Mark Siegel saw two "major paradoxes in [the author's ideas]. One is the emphasis he places on individual fulfillment while he simultaneously castigates egotism. The second is his apparent devotion to Eastern philosophies in Another Roadside Attraction…. Actually the two issues are closely related, both stemming from Robbins's notion that any truly fulfilling way of life must evolve from the individual's recognition of his true, personal relationship to the world."
"Robbins has an old trunk of a mind," said Thomas LeClair in a New York Times Book Review piece on Cowgirls. "[He] knows the atmosphere on Venus, cow diseases, hitchhiking manuals, herbs, the brain's circuitry, whooping cranes, circles, parades, Nisei internment," adding that these visions "add up to a primitivism just pragmatic enough to be attractive and fanciful enough to measure the straight society." In Ross's opinion, the author's style "generates its own head of steam and dances past the plot, characters and clockwork philosophy."
Paradoxical elements have become one of Robbins' literary trademarks. As he put it in a January Magazine interview in 2000, "Reality is contradictory. And it's paradoxical…. If you had to pick one word to describe the nature of the universe—I think that word would be paradox. That's true at the subatomic level, right through sociological, psychological, philosophical levels on up to cosmic levels." Such a view, Robbins pointed out, prompts a comic approach to life—though not one that suggests that life "is trivial or frivolous. Quite the contrary. There's nothing the least bit frivolous about the playful nature of the universe. Playfulness at a fully conscious level is extremely profound…. Wit and playfulness are a desperately serious transcendence of evil."
While many critics acknowledged the exhilarating effects of Robbins' literary playfulness, some objected to its overuse. As Ross put it in his review of Cowgirls, "a piling on of wisecracks is made to substitute for description." This penchant for wisecracking represented a sore point for some critics in Robbins' next novel, Still Life with Woodpecker. Saturday Review writer Julie B. Peters stated that in this tale of a princess's romance with an outlaw, the prose "is marbled with limping puns heavily splattered with recurrent motifs and a boyish zeal for the scatological." Taking a similar tack, Commonweal critic Frank McConnell pointed out that "a large part of the problem in reading Robbins [is that] he's so cute: his books are full of cute lines populated by unrelentingly cute people, even teeming with cute animals—frogs, chipmunks and chihuahuas in Still Life with Woodpecker. No one ever gets hurt very badly…. And although the world is threatened by the same dark, soulless business cartels that threaten the worlds of [Thomas] Pynchon, [Norman] Mailer, and our century, in Robbins it doesn't seem, finally, to matter. Love or something like it really does conquer all in his parables, with a mixture of stoned gaiety, positive thinking, and Sunday Supplement Taoism."
In telling the story of the unusual relationship between Princess Leigh-Cheri, heiress of the Pacific island of Mu, and good-hearted terrorist Bernard Micky Wrangle, alias Woodpecker, the author frames the tale by a monologue "having to do with his [Robbins'] efforts to type out his narrative on a Remington SL-3 typewriter, which at the end fails him, and he has to complete the novel in longhand," wrote Miller. The reviewer also found that the moral of Still Life with Woodpecker "is not as strong as that of the earlier two [novels], and while the plot seems more intricately interlaced, it has the complexity and exoticism of grand opera but little of its brilliance."
The generally disappointed reaction of critics to Still Life with Woodpecker left some of them wondering whether Robbins, with his free-form style, was keeping in touch with the needs of fiction readers in the upwardly mobile 1980s. The author addressed his critics' reservations with Jitterbug Perfume, published in 1984. In this novel, Seattle waitress Priscilla devotes her life to inventing the ultimate perfume. The challenge is taken up in locales as varied as New Orleans and Paris, while back in Seattle, Wiggs Dannyboy, described by Washington Post Book World reviewer Rudy Rucker as "a Timothy Leary work-alike who's given up acid for immortality research," enters the scene to provide insights on the 1960s.
Comparing Jitterbug Perfume to the author's other works, Rucker noted that the first two novels were sixties creations—"filled with mushrooms and visions, radicals and police. Still Life with Woodpecker is about the '70s viewed as the aftermath of the '60s." And in Jitterbug Perfume, "Robbins is still very much his old Pan-worshiping self, yet his new book is lovingly plotted, with every conceivable loose end nailed down tight. Although the ideas are the same as ever, the form is contemporary, new-realistic craftsmanship. Robbins toys with the 1980s' peculiar love/hate for the 60s through his invention of the character Wiggs Dannyboy." To John House, the work "is not so much a novel as an inspirational fable, full of Hallmark sweetness, good examples and hope springing eternal." House, in a New York Times Book Review article, went on to say that he found Robbins' style "unmistakable—oblique, florid, willing to sacrifice everything for an old joke or corny pun." While Jitterbug Perfume "is still less exuberant than 'Cowgirls,'" according to Don Strachan in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, the former is still "less diminished than honed. The author may still occasionally stick his foot in the door of his mouth, as he would say in one of those metaphors he loves to mix with wordplay salads, but then he'll unfurl a phrase that will bring your critical mind to its knees."
Robbins greeted a new decade with a new novel. Skinny Legs and All takes on the 1990s big issues with the author's sixties verve. Critic Joe Queenan commented in the New York Times Book Review that the novel "makes you want to dust off all those old Firesign Theater records and don those frayed, tie-dyed bell bottoms one last time." The story centers on Ellen Cherry Charles, waitress and would-be artist. She moves to New York City with her downscale husband, Boomer, hoping to break into the art world. It is Boomer, however, with his primitive trailer-art and homegrown wisdom ("If God didn't prefer for us to drink at night, he wouldn't have made neon"), who becomes the intelligentsia's darling. Along the way the reader meets overly enthusiastic evangelist Buddy Winkler, the Arab-and-Jewish restaurant partners Abu and Spike, the world's most erotic bellydancer, and a set of inanimate objects (spoon, sock, can of baked beans) that, thanks to reincarnation, suddenly become very animated.
Queenan found all this funny—up to a point. Robbins is at his best, Queenan opined, "when he is being snide, witty or downright juvenile…. But when [he] gets on his high horse, the results are pure bunkum." Charles Dickinson offered a similar opinion. "Robbins is fed up with a lot of the things about this world and the people in it," noted the Chicago Tribune critic. "In fact, there are times when it seems the only reason Robbins wrote this novel was to provide a framework for the delineation of his complaints; and that is the sole—but not unimportant—weakness in this book."
"I'm asking you to consider that hyper intelligent entities—agents of the overmind; aliens, if you will—could be abducting our frogs as part of a benign scheme to free us from the tyranny of the historical continuum and reunite our souls with the other-dimensional." That's just one of the propositions Robbins puts forth in his 1994 novel, Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas. The story, written in the second-person, ostensibly covers four days in the life of Seattle stockbroker Gwen Mati—but as usual in a Robbins book, the plot serves only as a framework to parade such characters as Gwen's friend Q-Jo, a 300-lb. psychic; lecherous businessman Larry Diamond, just back from a sabbatical in Timbuktu (and author of the aliens/frogs theory); straight man/foil Belford Dunn; and Andre, Belford's born-again monkey. ("It seems that Belford helped Andre find religion after the simian was caught helping a famous French heir rob the rich of their jewels," explained Chicago Tribune reviewer Chris Petrakos.)
In assessing Half Asleep, critics generally stayed true to their view of Robbins: funny, but given to preachiness. To Petrakos, "the frequently hilarious mingling of characters and sensibilities in the early half of the book bogs down in later pages. The whole idea of a born-again monkey seems undeveloped, as is the character of the psychic. While there are great weird bits and lyrical observations, as there are in all Robbins' novels, there's not the kind of wild exhilaration that one might expect."
"My theory on Tom Robbins," asserted Karen Karbo, writing in the New York Times Book Review, "is that unless his work was imprinted on you when you were 19 and stoned, you'll find him forever unreadable." Half Asleep, she claimed, "is vintage Robbins, a recommendation for those of you who can stand it." Washington Post's Rudy Rucker was more accommodating in his evaluation: while he tired of the ceaseless ramblings of the Larry Diamond character, he advised like-minded readers "to indulge [the author] a little, as Robbins can still write phrases of mind-boggling beauty. On a foggy, rainy day in Seattle: 'Your building is surrounded by the soft, the gray, and the moist, as if it is being digested by an oyster.'"
True to form, Robbins presents another bizarre conflation of characters, events, and ideas in Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates, published in 2000 and his longest novel to date. The book was inspired in part by a journal entry by travel writer Bruce Chatwin. "That brief entry," Robbins told an interviewer for Amazon.com, "struck the flint of my imaginative Zippo, causing me to ask myself the most essential question of the creative process: 'What if …?'" The book involves the adventures of CIA operative Switters as he careens through assignments from the Peruvian jungle to the Syrian desert, encountering a mad shaman, a convent of lapsed nuns, and the third prophecy of Fatima, kept well-guarded by the Vatican. As is typical of Robbins' work, the novel is filled with wordplay, offbeat humor, and extreme plot devices. "Fierce Invalids is a sort of gonzo Celestine Prophecy," observed New York Times Book Review contributor James Poniewozik. "Anyone familiar with Robbins will recognize Switters as a lightly camouflaged, if heavily armed, author surrogate, a trickster god bearing the Robbinsian theme that we bring evil on ourselves by taking things too seriously." Though he appreciated the book's humor, Poniewozik identified an "irritating" quality in the novel. "Robbins's satisfaction with his outre protagonist borders on smugness," he complained. Objecting to the book's oversimplified preachiness, the critic wrote that "Robbins manages, in the same breath, both to pander and to condescend to his backpack-slinging audience."
Robbins did not stray from his eccentric path in 2003's Villa Incognito, a novel which includes drug-smuggling MIA Americans who decided to stay missing, a mythic, animal-like Japanese creature who has a child with a human, along with a host of political and social issues. A reviewer in Book gave a good summation of how critics saw this novel, "Robbins devotees will lap this up; the rest of us may remain unconvinced."
Robbins, who was named one of "The 100 Best Writers of the Twentieth Century" by Writer's Digest, received the Golden Umbrella Award—his first literary prize—in 1997. Yet he continues to see his work in a playful light. Admitting to January Magazine that he writes to entertain, Robbins distinguished himself from authors who write merely to entertain: "What I try to do," he explained, "is to mix fantasy and spirituality, sexuality, humor and poetry in combinations that have never quite been seen before in literature. And I guess when a reader finishes one of my books … I would like for him or her to be in the state that they would be in after a Fellini film or a Grateful Dead concert. Which is to say that they've encountered the life force in a large, irrepressible and unpredictable way and … their sense of wonder has been awakened and all of their possibilities have been expanded."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 9, 1978, Volume 32, 1985, Volume 64, 1991.
Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1981.
Hoyser, Catherine Elizabeth, Tom Robbins: A Critical Companion, Greenwood Press, 1997.
Klinkowitz, Jerome, The Practice of Fiction in America: Writers from Hawthorne to the Present, Iowa State University Press (Ames, IA), 1980.
Nadeau, Robert, Readings from the New Book on Nature: Physics and Metaphysics in the Modern Novel, University of Massachusetts Press (Amherst, MA), 1981.
Robbins, Tom, Skinny Legs and All, Bantam (New York, NY), 1990.
Robbins, Tom, Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas, Bantam (New York, NY), 1994.
Siegel, Mark, Tom Robbins, Boise State University Press, 1980.
Book, May-June, 2003, pp. 79-80.
Booklist, March 15, 2000, p. 1293; February 15, 2003, p. 1019.
Chicago Review, autumn, 1980.
Chicago Tribune, April 1, 1990, p. 3; November 17, 1994, p. 2.
Commonweal, March 13, 1981.
Detroit News, October 5, 1980; January 6, 1985.
Entertainment Weekly, May 12, 2000, p. 72; May 2, 2003, p. 74.
Kirkus Reviews, February 15, 2003, p. 265.
Library Journal, March 1, 2000, p. 53; March 15, 2003, p. 116.
Literature and Psychology, fall, 2001, pp. 59-60.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 16, 1984; April 15, 1990; September 25, 1994, p. 3.
Nation, August 28, 1976; October 25, 1980.
New Boston Review, December, 1977.
New Republic, June 26, 1971.
New Statesman, August 12, 1977.
Newsweek, September 29, 1980.
New York Times, December 30, 1993.
New York Times Book Review, May 23, 1976; September 28, 1980; December 9, 1984; April 15, 1990, p. 12; October 30, 1994, p. 27; May 21, 2000.
New York Times Magazine, February 12, 1978.
People Weekly, June 12, 2000, p. 51.
Playboy, June, 2000, p. 45.
Publishers Weekly, March 20, 2000, p. 68.
Saturday Review, September, 1980.
Seattle Weekly, May 4, 2000.
Times Literary Supplement, October 31, 1980.
Toronto Star, June 20, 2000.
Washington Post, December 18, 1994, p. 5. Washington Post Book World, October 25, 1980.
Amazon.com, http://www.amazon.com/ (May 31, 2005), interview with Tom Robbins.
BookPage, http://www.bookpage.com/ (August 18, 2004), Michael Sims, "Tom Robbins: An Outrageous Writer in a Politically Correct Era."
January Magazine, http://www.januarymagazine.com/ (June, 2000), Linda Richards, "Tom Robbins Interview."
Salon.com, http://www.salon.com/ Tracy Johnson, "Tom Robbins."
Seattle Weekly Web Site, http://www.seattleweekly.com/ (August 18, 2004), Michael Downey, "Tom Rob-bins: My Life and Work."