Tom Robbins

As new waves of 20-year-olds wash up on his shores, the favorite novelist of the attitudinal post-adolescent set keeps writing with a pen dipped in acid.

Published March 9, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Writers can be defined by their fans. Die-hard Tom Robbins fans dwell in the outer reaches of the Internet, swapping recipes inspired by his books. They trade his novels on chicken buses crawling through Third World countries. They want to climb inside the books, light up a joint and join the fun. I met one of them a few years ago in a London pub. He was American, about 45 years old, with long, scraggly gray hair. We somehow got on the topic of Robbins' books and he told me that he thought he was Alobar, a 1,000-year-old janitor that stars in Robbins' fifth novel, "Jitterbug Perfume."

The thing about Alobar is that although he's 1,000 years old, he still has no trouble getting laid. Which was also my new friend's goal. Had he really been living in a Robbins novel, he would have swept the naive 22-year-old Canadian away, fucked me and left me thankful for the experience. I was pretty entranced by Robbins at that point in my life, and had the guy convinced me of his Alobar-ness, he might have stood a chance. As it was, I felt sure that if Alobar existed it wouldn't be in the guise of a pigeon-chested dirty old man holding up the bar in London's tourist district.

No one writes like Robbins. He once described Debra Winger's voice as follows: It "sounds as though it was strained through the honeymoon sheets of Bogey and Bacall and then hosed down with plum brandy." Robbins doesn't have an imagination. His imagination has him. Here, in "Skinny Legs and All," he sets the scene: "It was a bright, defrosted, pussy willow day at the onset of spring, and the newlyweds were driving cross-country in a large roast turkey." And then there's the opening line from "Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas," published in 1994: "The day the stock market falls out of bed and breaks its back is the worst day of your life." And yet another singular opening, this one from 1971's "Another Roadside Attraction," the book that first put him on the map: "The magician's underwear has just been found in a cardboard suitcase floating in a stagnant pond on the outskirts of Miami."

It's part of Robbins' mythology that, in 1963, he tried acid for the first time. It was the early days of psychedelics and LSD was still legal. Robbins had coaxed a pharmacology professor into letting him try the drug. He told Rolling Stone magazine that the day of his first trip, July 16, was the most rewarding of his life. Robbins said that after dropping the acid, he sat in a chair for eight hours, not moving except to go to the bathroom. The next six months were, literally, a trip. He couldn't read or write, and he eventually quit his job as an art critic for the Seattle Times and moved to New York to better explore the depth and breadth of acid trips. A few years later he started writing his first novel.

Anyone who has read Robbins won't be surprised by that story. He seems to formulate plots while in the throes of a happy acid trip, unlike the paranoid Hunter S. Thompson variety. "Another Roadside Attraction" is about the mummified corpse of Jesus, stolen from the Vatican and put on display in a roadside zoo. "Skinny Legs and All" is partly narrated by a group of inanimate objects, including a pedantic can of beans and a magic stick. Robbins says the key to understanding his books is the Tibetan Buddhist concept of "crazy wisdom" -- though magic mushrooms might also help.

What's so attractive about Robbins' books is that they are completely bizarre yet wholly coherent. They appear to have been conceived on the underside of an acid tab but written in the harsh light of morning. Robbins is serious about his writing. Even when he introduces unlikely characters such as an existential can of pork and beans, he explains them. Here's how he justifies his "animate" inanimate characters in "Skinny Legs and All":

The inertia of objects is deceptive. The inanimate world appears static, "dead" to humans only because of our neuro-muscular chauvinism ... Look deeper. You'll need a magnifying glass ... On the atomic and sub-atomic levels, weird electrical forces are crackling and flaring, and amorphous particles are spinning simultaneously forward and backward, sideways and forever at speeds so incalculable that expressions such as "arrival," "departure," and "have a nice day" become meaningless. It is on these levels that "magic" occurs.

I may have been only 19 when I read that, but it seemed pretty damn plausible to me.

As the previous passage suggests, Robbins is an aficionado of compound sentences. He says that when he writes, each sentence is a universe unto itself; that when he starts a book, he has no idea of what the story will be. He simply goes sentence by sentence, writing in longhand, never knowing what will come next, never leaving a sentence behind until it's perfect. Sounds painful, no? It also sounds unlikely.

The first time I read that, I figured he was fibbing, trying to create a persona. However, when you look closely at his work, there are virtually no throwaway lines -- they seem crafted. It's no surprise, therefore, that Robbins puts out about 500 words a day. The poor man's probably exhausted.

Robbins typically spends a year traveling after completing and promoting each novel. Then he comes home and conceives, researches and writes the next book. To the supreme frustration of his fans, this takes a long time. One Web site keeps count of how many days have passed since his last novel, comparing that with the longest number of days between novels. After 1994's "Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas," Robbins' next offering will be "Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates," to be released in May.

Robbins says he found his voice in 1967 while writing a review of a Doors concert in Seattle. In the review he described the band's style as "early cunnilingual, late patricidal, lunchtime in the Everglades."

When Robbins published "Another Roadside Attraction" in 1971, it was a failure in hardcover, selling less than half its print run of 5,000. He was scrambling to survive while writing his next novel, "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues," when the paperback edition of "ARA" started to take off. It eventually sold several hundred thousand copies in mass-market paperback, which inspired publishers to bring out Robbins' next two books simultaneously in hardcover and paperback. It wasn't until 1985 that he got the "serious novelist" treatment of having a hardcover published before the paperback.

That story illustrates a couple of things. The first is that Robbins made his mark as the official record-keeper of post-adolescents with an attitude problem. He stays popular because of the successive waves of 20-year-olds that wash up on his shores.

I went through my obsessive Robbins phase between the ages of 19 and 22. I was given "Skinny Legs and All" by a friend's father, who lent us his car for a road trip from Vancouver to San Diego and included his copy of "Skinny Legs," which he had tried to read but "didn't get." I had just finished my first year of an undergraduate degree in English lit, which in Canada means large doses of the Margarets (Atwood and Laurence) and can make for a very melancholy teenager. Bumping down the Pacific Coast Highway, I fell into the story, surfacing only when I had to drive or when the curves in the road got too nauseating. "Skinny Legs and All" is about war and sex and religion and joy, and it was a complete revelation to me. I learned a heretic's history of Christianity, and it made me burn to go to Jerusalem.

I started reading Robbins' books in reverse order, starting with the most recent and heading back to the halcyon days of the '70s. The books got weirder and weirder. By the time I got to "ARA" I had no clue what was going on but didn't really care. This changed when I grew up and got a job. I read "Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas" when I was 24, and the premise seemed kind of worn to me. I blamed Robbins, but then my mother told me that she had read him when she was in her early 20s, then abruptly stopped after "Cowgirls."

There seems to be a limited window when you can feel his magic.

I'm being polite. What my mother actually said is that Robbins panders to superannuated hippies. The overwrought metaphors, the Timothy Leary character in every book, the gimmicky plot lines seriously annoy some readers. As much as it pains me, there are Robbins haters in the world. A British newspaper once said Robbins writes like Dolly Parton dresses -- I don't think it was meant as a compliment. He has long been grouped with counterculture-gone-bestsellers like Richard Brautigan and Kurt Vonnegut, who, like Robbins, were required reading in the '70s, and all of whom, critics say, preached the '60s worldview well past its sell-by date. Robbins and Brautigan particularly caught flak for their oversexed-flower-child, nonlinear silliness, which, I might add, didn't hurt sales terribly much.

A 1980 review of "Still Life With Woodpecker" in Washington Post Book World described Robbins as being close in style to Phyllis Diller; it said the "book is often fun, often as murdered with coyness that you could flush it without a thought of the dollars it cost." Although the review was positive overall, the criticisms are typical, the reason why he has never gotten much attention from the literary establishment. The review blurbs on Robbins' book jackets are completely free of quotes from the New York Review of Books. But, hey, Playboy is well represented.

Robbins told the New York Times in 1993 that critics have trouble with his goofiness. "One reviewer said I need to make up my mind if I want to be funny or serious. My response is that I will make up my mind when God does, because life is a commingling of the sacred and the profane, good and evil. To try and separate them is fallacy." He also took a shot at critics over "Jitterbug Perfume," saying they "attack[ed] what is quirky and disobedient." So there.

Robbins was born on July 22, 1936, in Blowing Rock, N.C., the grandchild of two Baptist preachers. His family moved to Virginia when he was quite young, and he was raised in a suburb of Richmond. His mother wrote religious material and encouraged him when, at the age of 5, he started dictating stories to her. He went through the usual writerly incubation process, leaving university early and hitchhiking across the country. In 1956, he was living in New York trying to make it as a poet when he was
drafted and sent to Korea. While in uniform, he taught meteorology to the
South Korean Air Force and ran a black market in toiletries.

After leaving the Air Force, Robbins went back to Virginia, attended art school and worked for the local paper, the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Part of his job included choosing photos to illustrate a music-gossip column. At the time the paper refused to print photos of African-Americans. Not that Robbins cared -- he was warned twice when he chose published photos of black performers. He hit the miscegenation jackpot, though, when he published a picture of Sammy Davis Jr. and his new wife, Scandinavian actress Mai Britt. Robbins was fired, and left Richmond aiming to get as far as possible from Virginia while still living in the continental United States. He landed in the Seattle area, which is where he has remained off and on for 40 years, writing in a small house in the largest tulip-growing region in the States.

Robbins has lived the classic hippie writer's life: multiple wives, internovel trips to obscure places, a child named after a '70s rock band. He has groupies who send him art based on his books, and readers are always telling him, "You changed my life." It stands to reason that, in person, he should be a bit of a blowhard, a charming blowhard, but a blowhard all the same.

A Rolling Stone interviewer assigned to do a story on Robbins in 1977 figured he could show up, turn on the tape recorder and let the novelist do all the work. "What Robbins fan would have expected the new king of the extended metaphor, dependent clause, outrageous pun ... to be just about as talkative as a Puget Sound clam."

So Robbins is either shy or simply not interested in spewing forth to reporters. What is known about his personal life is that he's married to his fourth wife, has a son in his 20s named Fleetwood, plays competitive volleyball, loves Virginia-grown tomatoes and tries to have a life outside his work. He resembles an aging cherub, with round cheeks and happy-looking crow's-feet.

It's hard to determine just how influential Robbins has been to other writers. His voice is unique -- it would be sheer folly to try to copy it. What's more likely is that he has inspired other writers to combine goofiness with serious themes. A recent example seems to be Rebecca Wells' huge bestseller, "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood." Robbins wrote a blurb for the book jacket calling it the "goofy monkey dance of life." "Ya-Ya" was so successful not because it told a heartbreaking story of an estranged mother and daughter but because it was silly and made you laugh out loud.

Like other writers with a rabid following, there have been attempts to take Robbins novels to the screen. In 1993, the New York Times said the road to Hollywood is littered with failed screenplay attempts of Robbins novels. The only one to have been made into a movie so far is "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" in 1994, starring Uma Thurman and her prosthetic thumbs. The joy of the novel didn't quite translate to celluloid, and the movie was a critical and commercial failure. Other screenplays are floating around, notably a treatment for "Another Roadside Attraction" with the characters all grown up and living in the '90s. At one time, there was also talk of a treatment for "Skinny Legs and All," probably Robbins' most tightly plotted book. Apparently, the movie was to be narrated by one of the inanimate objects, a painted stick that had resided in Solomon's first temple.

If you think about that for a moment, it becomes clear why the movie has yet to be made.

Robbins' greatest accomplishment is probably that he has successfully force-fed the '60s ethos to countless complacent children of hippies. I am a complacent child of a hippie, and feel that the '60s were, in part, an exercise in demographics. Baby boomers were coming of age en masse in the last half of the decade and were doing what comes naturally to 20-year-olds: getting laid, getting stoned and trying to rattle society's chain. Robbins disagrees, though, and he gets the last word (from "Jitterbug Perfume"):

Nevertheless, the sixties were special; not only did they differ from the twenties, the fifties, the seventies, etc. they were superior to them. Like the Arthurian years at Camelot, the sixties constituted a breakthrough, a time when a significant little chunk of humanity briefly realized its moral potential and flirted with its neurological destiny, a collective spiritual awakening that flared brilliantly until the barbaric and mediocre impulses of the species drew tight once more the curtains of darkness.

By Tracy Johnson

Tracy Johnson is freelance writer in Calgary, Alberta.

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