Tom Robbins Biography
Tom Robbins comments:
Nationality: American. Born: Thomas Eugene Robbins in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, 1936. Education: High school in Warsaw, Virginia; Hargarve Military Academy; Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Virginia; Richmond Professional Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth University), graduated 1960. Military Service: Served in the United States Air Force in Korea. Career: Copy editor, Richmond Times-Dispatch, 1960-62, and Seattle Times and Post-Intelligencer, 1962-63; reviewer and art columnist, Seattle Magazine, and radio host, 1964-68. Agent: Phoebe Larmore, 228 Main Street, Venice, California 90291, USA.
Another Roadside Attraction. New York, Doubleday, 1971; London, W.H. Allen, 1973.
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1976;London, Corgi, 1977.
Still Life with Woodpecker. New York, Bantam, and London, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1980.
Jitterbug Perfume. New York, Bantam, 1984.
Skinny Legs and All. New York, Bantam, 1990; London, Bantam, 1991.
Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas. New York, Bantam, 1994.
Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates. New York, Bantam Books, 2000.
Uncollected Short Story
"The Chink and the Clock People," in The Best American Short Stories 1977, edited by Martha Foley. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1977.
Guy Anderson. Seattle, Gear Works Press, 1965.
Guy Anderson (exhibition catalogue), with William Ivey and WallaceS. Baldinger. Seattle, Seattle Art Museum, 1977.
Tom Robbins by Mark Siegel, Boise, Idaho, Boise State University, 1980; Tom Robbins: A Critical Companion by Catherine E. Hoyser and Lorena Laura Stookey, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1997.
I sometimes think of my serio-comic novels as cakes with files baked in them. If you choose, you can throw the file away and simply enjoy the cake. Or, you may use the file to saw through the iron bars erected by those forces in life that are forever trying to imprison us. Of course, if you aren't hip enough to know the file is there, you may end up with dental problems of an acute nature.
* * *
Although practically ignored by academic critics, except as an eccentric regionalist, Tom Robbins with his first two novels became the only American novelist since J.D. Salinger and Jack Kerouac in the 1950s to become a cult hero among disaffected college undergraduates.
Like Salinger—and Thomas Pynchon, who in an uncharacteristic move has publicly praised Robbins's second novel—the author lives in seclusion. He allows himself to be described only as "a student of art and religion" who "dropped out" to write fiction in a Washington State fishing village. Although Kerouac is the only author Robbins mentions in his novels, these more nearly resemble Salinger's Glass Family stories. The ostensible "author" frequently interrupts the stories; and, although the characters are more bizarre than Salinger's, they tend like his to be highly talkative, much given to self-analysis, lengthy confessions, and populist philosophical speculation.
Robbins's writing is even more bitterly anti-Establishment than Salinger's or Kerouac's; FBI and CIA violence and treachery and the conspiratorial practices of the Roman Catholic Church are his most frequent targets. Much of the action of Another Roadside Attraction, for example, deals with the involvement of Plucky Purcell (a regenade football player) in a secret order of monks that leads to his discovery during an earthquake of the mummified body of Jesus hidden in the Vatican catacombs. He brings his grotesque find to the "roadside attraction," a giant West Coast hot-dog stand operated by drop-out artist John Paul Ziller and his wife Amanda, an archetypal matriarchal figure. The principal movement of the story, narrated by Marx Marvelous, a skeptical scientific dropout from an East Coast think tank, is toward "light," toward a physical dissolution of the individual in his reunion with the sun, which Ziller describes to Marvelous as "the source of all biological energy, and ultimately … the source of you." While Plucky debates how to use Christ's corpse to expose the hoax of Christian culture, Ziller steals it and sets off with it and his pet baboon on a space balloon for the "return to sunlight," which he had said was an "inevitability" he'd been "reckoning with." "Let Amanda by your pine cone," the novel concludes as a joyous tribute to her survival.
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues is longer, talkier, and more self-consciously whimsical than its predecessor. The first half of the novel dwells upon the picaresque adventures of Sissy Hankshaw, a born hitch-hiker with monstrous thumbs. Most of the second half is dominated by the "clock people," Indian refugees from the San Francisco earthquake, who have substituted rigid individual rituals for societal rituals. The two fantasies are united by events at the Rubber Rose Ranch, a wealthy women's retreat that is seized by insurgent cowgirls. Their brush with the government culminates in the Whooping Crane war, after the cowgirls disrupt the endangered species' migration by feeding them peyote. The convoluted story, which is related by an offbeat psychiatrist curiously named Robbins, winds up with the cranes circling the globe while Sissy is envisioned as the mother of a tribe of big-thumbed people in the "postcatastrophe" world.
Whimsy predominates in Robbins's third book, the short and relatively uncomplicated Still Life with Woodpecker, which counterpoints such trendy topics of the early 1980s as deposed royalty, redheaded bombers, and pyramid power to ask the plaintive question, "Who knows how to make love stay?" Robbins despairs of an answer during an era of distrust between the sexes, but an almost Aida-like ending hints at a way out of the dilemma.
Heavy-handed whimsy turns into sheer fantasy in Jitterbug Perfume. The action of this fourth novel focuses on Alobar, tribal king of a tiny, barbarous medieval city-state, who escapes the customary execution of the ruler at his first sign of aging to become for a thousand years a wanderer to exotic places who has learned the Bandaloop principles of immortal life. Interpolated into this bizarre pilgrimage are brief glimpses of life among the perfume-makers in contemporary Seattle, New Orleans, and Paris. This fable simply lays the groundwork for the climactic proclamation of Wiggs Dannyboy (a character reminiscent of Timothy Leary) a man that is on the verge of leaving behind his reptilian and mammalian consciousness to enter the phase of "floral consciousness," during which the production of sensorily stimulating perfumes will be his highest good. It is hard to tell how seriously to take this preachment; but if it isn't serious, there seems no point at all to the long stretches of Robbins's increasingly self-indulgent prose. As the title suggests, the whole production has the dated air of celebrating the culture of the flower children of the 1960s. These two later works have done little to sustain Robbins's position as guru to an underground cult.
Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates, Robbins's first novel in six years, proved that he still had a command of lush, sexy prose, but the author's use of contrived, bizarre plots—a CIA operative who loves underage girls goes to Peru and as the result of a curse is unable to let his feet touch the ground for fear of death—was wearing thin. Subsequent events, however, gave Robbins stalwarts ammunition against critics. The novel, released on May 2, 2000, contained speculation regarding the third secret imparted by the Virgin at Fatima. (In 1917, three Portuguese children reportedly had a vision of the Virgin Mary, who told them three secrets. The first two, "revealed" after the fact by the Church, allegedly concerned the events of the Russian Revolution and World War II.) The third secret remained unrevealed, however—until just a few days after the release of Robbins's novel, when Pope John Paul II stated that it concerned the 1981 assassination attempt against him. Robbins, who had suggested in his book that the third secret was that "the salvation of mankind would come from a source other than the church," emerged from his reclusive exile to speculate impishly on the pages of Time magazine: "I'd hate to accuse the Pope of reading my book," he said, "but 10 days after it's published, they reveal a long-held secret as something pretty wimpy and innocuous."
updated by Judson Knight
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