In years past, if someone asked me, "Hey, I found this Tom Robbins book lying around, so should I read it?" I would've said yes. No hesitation. No equivocation. "That guy," I'd say, "is a stylist. And I mean that in the best possible way."
Because that's what Tom Robbins is, was, forever shall be: He's the god young writers pray to when they're lost and trying to find their voice. He's the mountain every working writer surveys when they're trying to put a sentence together that's more complicated than subject-verb-predicate.
There was a time when he was the writer — the man that every itinerant scribbler (myself included) wanted to be — and when he was an out-and-out rockstar among word wranglers; someone who signed the breasts of ardent fans (something he writes about in his new memoir, Tibetan Peach Pie), debuted on bestseller lists (something else he writes about) and had searchlights painting the skies at his book signings (which, you guessed it, he also writes about).
But were someone to come up to me with a copy of Tibetan Peach Pie and say, "Hey, someone just gave me a copy of Tom Robbins' new memoir. Should I read it?" I'd have a slightly different answer. "That guy," I'd say, "is a stylist. And I mean that in the best possible way. But man, you gotta really like Tom Robbins to want to read that one."
And I'm not saying this because the book isn't beautiful. It is. Robbins has never met a pun, a blissfully crooked analogy, a magician's bit of verbal trickery that he didn't love (and lampshade, and then lampshade some more, with a grin and a wink as though to let everyone know that we're all in on the same joke).
As such, his voice, stripped of its native Carolina drawl by force of will, "sounds as if it's been strained through Davy Crockett's underwear." In describing his reaction to seeing a Natalie Wood film at a tender age, he says his "scruffy whippersnapper heart opened like a sardine tin ... radiating such a vortex of woo woo love it would have made Saint Francis of Assisi seem like a mink rancher."
Oh, and those ellipses in there? They're standing in for fifty or a hundred or two hundred additional words, descriptive and lovely and weighty and fierce, all describing his sudden, near-religious response to Tomorrow Is Forever. Why? Because Tom Robbins is, above all else, a stylist. He knows words the way a pool hustler knows chalk. And when he wants to make a point, he doesn't spare the printers any ink.
But again, that's not why I'm adding the extra codicil to my usual blanket recommendation of all Robbins-alia. It's not because the man didn't live an interesting life (he was beloved of both Timothy Leary and the Hell's Angels, after all; drank beers with Shelly Duvall, dropped acid before it was cool, and was, briefly, suspected of being the Unabomber). And it's not because he can't tell a story (his evocations of the Depression-era South and the pre-Beatnik 1950's are the stuff of PBS documentaries, if PBS documentaries were regularly directed by the Coen brothers).
But at a certain point little Tommy Rotten (his childhood nickname) grows up and becomes TOM ROBBINS, all caps. He becomes, right before our eyes, that young cosmic fool, burning up the landscape with his words and cleverness. He finds success and comfort — two things that are death to any memoir, unless they come only in the last couple of pages. And worse, he turns all that language on himself.
See, that is the rough thing about reading this Robbins. Where, in every novel, he uses his black belt word-ninja skills to make us love the misfits and weirdos which populate his imaginary landscapes, here — by nature of the memoir as form — he is forced to speak about himself. And he does so the same way he spoke of Sissy Hankshaw, Wiggs Dannyboy, the Woodpecker and Plucky Purcell. This works well for tales of deformed hitchhikers and outlaw bombers, but it can become grating, navel-gaze-y and not-so-humble-brag-ish when it's Tom Robbins writing about Tom Robbins; when he has cast himself, by necessity, as the central hero in a book that reads nearly as weird and scattered and unlikely as some of his novels.
So, going in, you gotta love Tom. You gotta be itching to know about his first acid trip, his feelings on tomato-and-mayonnaise sandwiches and his long list of ex-wives. You gotta imagine yourself washed up on a barstool in La Conner, Washington, trapped by a typhoon or a toad-rain or worse, and fortunate enough to find yourself sitting next to the now aged cosmic fool as he starts to talk and tell you the tales of how he got from Blowing Rock, North Carolina to here, consorted with artists and idiots, drank some beer, ran away with the circus, predicted the weather, loved some women, sired some children, traveled the world and, somehow, found the time to write a few books along the way.
Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphiamagazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From The Radiation Age is his newest book.