Robbins, Tom (1936—)

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Robbins, Tom (1936—)

The novelist Tom Robbins was one of the foremost writers of the 1970s and 1980s counterculture, joining Kurt Vonnegut and Robert Pirsig as the gurus of the youth market. His novels wittily debunked the powers that be and challenged conceptions of normalcy, earning him a following of college student groupies. His novels' trademarks are episodic, nonlinear structures that mimic psychedelic LSD trips; casts of eccentric characters with names like Bonanza Jellybean and Marx Marvelous; plots that center on the quest for the Meaning of Life; a flamboyant style characterized by over-the-top metaphors and absurd images; and an optimistic philosophy based on Eastern mysticism, quantum physics, anti-materialism, feminism, and above all, playfulness.

Robbins grew up in Virginia and was raised to be a "southern gentleman," although two years at Washington and Lee University convinced him that he did not fit the mold. In the 1950s, he hitchhiked across the country and was drafted into the military, serving in the air force in Korea. After the war, Robbins earned his degree from the Richmond Professional Institute and started a career as a newspaper arts critic. He fled the conservative South in 1962 and settled in the Seattle area, where he still lives. During the 1960s, Robbins began to experiment with LSD, which he told Steven Dougherty ranks "right up there with the microscope and the telescope as an instrument of exploration." When he began to publish his novels, he was already a prominent figure of countercultural Seattle and New York.

Robbins landed on the national scene in 1973 when his first book, Another Roadside Attraction (1971), came out in paperback. Its popularity fueled by word of mouth, the novel became an instant cult favorite on college campuses. In this book, a group of eccentrics discover Christ's mummified body, bring it to a hot dog stand called Capt. Kendrick Memorial Hot Dog Wildlife Preserve, and try to disprove Christianity. The book repudiates the authority of Christianity and offers Eastern religion as a more healthy alternative.

His second book, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1976), was his most popular. Within four years it sold 1.3 million copies. It tells the story of Sissy Hankshaw, a beautiful woman who learns to live with her socially unacceptable, oversized thumbs, by becoming the best hitchhiker in the country. She ends up at a South Dakota ranch run by cowgirl feminists, where she discovers the path to wisdom with the help of a Japanese hermit. The book struck a chord with readers who had grown disillusioned about America's materialist and patriarchal society. Sissy learns that Americans must reach back to their spiritual roots in Pantheism, which is characterized by feminine receptivity rather than masculine aggression. In 1993, after years of failed deals, the novel was finally made into a film by director Gus Van Sant.

Robbins' next novel, Still Life with Woodpecker (1980), a love story about a terrorist and a princess who escape their assailants through the image of the desert on a pack of Camel cigarettes, gained him popularity with a new generation of college students, although critics were growing tired of his style and playfulness, believing him unwilling to grow up and accept the status quo. Jitterbug Perfume (1984), an elaborate novel loosely centered around the search for immortality, likewise landed on the best-seller lists. With this novel, his reviews also improved. His last two novels, Skinny Legs and All (1990), which features inanimate, everyday objects as characters, and Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas (1994), which is told entirely in the second person, employ his trademark style, but their themes are much darker. Robbins has become more serious in his depiction of greed, religious fundamentalism, and destruction of the environment, turning off some readers. Others feel that his style and message have largely lost their appeal for a generation of readers and critics who have outgrown their attraction to absurdity and countercultural ethics. But for Robbins, critiquing the culture he lives in is not a fad but his life's work. His goal as a writer is to help change human consciousness. "We are in this life to enlarge the soul and light up the brain," he has written.

—Anne Boyd

Further Reading:

Dougherty, Steven. "Cowgirls May Get the Blues, but Not Tom Robbins, Who Pours It On in Jitterbug Perfume." People Weekly. April 1, 1985, 123-124.

Hoyser, Catherine E., and Lorena Laura Stookey. Tom Robbins: A Critical Companion. Wesport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1997.

O'Connell, Nicholas. At the Field's End: Interviews with 20 Pacific Northwest Writers. Seattle, Madrona Publishers, 1987, 264-284.

Siegel, Mark. Tom Robbins. Boise, Idaho, Boise State University Press, 1980.