Thursday, August 7, 2014


Few notable authors are as interesting as their works. Their creativity shows up more on their pages than in their lives. Lord Byron was an exception. Ovid was quite the man about town, and I’d still like to know what he did in 8AD that got him exiled to Tomis, present day Costanta in Romania. His only surviving comment on it is “carmen et error” (a poem and an error); the error might have involved Augustus’ granddaughter Julia. Fitzgerald’s life is a cautionary tale. Hemingway tried way too hard to be as interesting as his books.

Most successful authors, however, are pretty ordinary folks likely to have soporific (auto)biographies. So, there were only two reasons I picked up Tibetan Peach Pie by Tom Robbins. One was that it was written by Tom Robbins, and I like the way he writes regardless of topic. The second was the capitalized disclaimer on the back cover, “THIS IS NOT AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY.” He adds, “I’d like to think Tibetan Peach Pie isn’t a memoir either, although it waddles and quacks enough like a memoir to be mistaken for one if the light isn’t right.” Robbins is entitled to like to think anything, but in truth Tibetan Peach Pie is a memoir in any light. That’s OK. His prose is still fun to read and the book contains enjoyable factual curiosities about his Depression-era Appalachian childhood, his attempts over decades to live by writing, and his travels while researching books. It even offers the odd tidbit of advice, such as how to have a better appearance than he did on the Jon Stewart Show. The night before his appearance the producer called him and they talked at some length. He thought she was just getting a general feel for the personality of the guest. “In my foolish innocence, I hadn’t realized that the banter between hosts and guests on late night TV – all light night TV – is to some degree scripted.” Jon Stewart tried to recap Robbins’ chat with the producer from his notes while Robbins wanted to talk about other things entirely. It didn’t go well. Good to know. Nonetheless, while the book has its charms, become a fan of Tom Robbins’ fiction before you pick up Tibetan Peach Pie. The waddles and quacks might not catch your eyes and ears otherwise.

Robbins’ career does give hope to literarily ambitious late-starters (often alarmingly defined as over-30) who sigh whenever they see some wunderkind reviewed in The New York Review of Books. Robbins published his debut novel Another Roadside Attraction in 1971 at age 39. There are older debut novelists, of course, including James Michener (40), Henry Miller (43), Margaret Walker (51), Raymond Chandler (51), and Laura Ingalls Wilder (64, the Little House series). Keep in mind, though, that nearly all of them wrote in some other professional capacity first, journalism being a favorite. Robbins wrote art and theater reviews in Seattle prior to writing fiction.

If you read only one Tom Robbins novel, my recommendation is Jitterbug Perfume about the search for immortality, sexuality, scent, beets, and Pan. There are four storylines set in ancient pagan Bohemia, modern Seattle, Paris, and New Orleans. Erudite, accessible, adventurous, deep, frivolous, and funny all at the same time, Jitterbug Perfume is a marvelous romp, full of turns of phrase that you’ll try to remember in order to spring on people at parties. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues is a pretty good read also, but the movie should be avoided at all costs (22% on Rotten Tomatoes).

Book Trailer Jitterbug Perfume


  1. I've never read Robbins, but I always imagined he might write like Kurt Vonnegut, as sometimes Vonnegut takes on that random nature of things writing style, however, that may not be the case when comparing the two. I also enjoy memoirs and such, whether or not I'm familiar with the person. I had heard Cowgirls was a bad movie, and never saw it.

    I'm not much of a late night fan for the reasons you've eluded too--it's too contrived and really has just turned into a promotional tool. I wasn't a big Johnny Carson fan, but at least it seemed like his show was a bit more spontaneous. I also enjoy Stewart, Colbert, and Letterman, when I'm in the mood and nothing else is on, or they happen to have a guest that might appeal to me--though their guest hardly gets in depth about anything, just shill their newest endeavor.

    I used to enjoy Dick Cavett in the old days and Tom Snyder some too, but I doubt those days are coming back. The best I can see that mimic them is Charlie Rose and Tavis Smiley, when I can catch them as they come on late here, and have someone that I'm interested in.

    1. I hadn’t thought of the Vonnegut comparison because their prose styles are so different, but underneath that they really are similar. Vonnegut uses simple language and sentence structure, throwing in the odd sesquipedalian word (like, say, “sesquipedalian”) just to show that his preferred style is a matter of choice. He disdains complex sentence structures, saying of semicolons, “All they do is show you've been to college.” (I’m fond of semicolons and defended them years ago in a blog Save the Semicolon , but I also like Kurt’s style which works for Kurt.)

      Robbins, on the other hand loves to play with language and metaphors – and I do mean play. To pick an example chockfull of semicolons, one of his characters sings the praises of tequila thus: “Tequila, scorpion honey, harsh dew of the doglands, essence of Aztec, crema de cacti; tequila, oily and thermal like the sun in solution; tequila, liquid geometry of passion; Tequila, the buzzard god who copulates in midair with the ascending souls of dying virgins; tequila, firebug in the house of good taste; O tequila, savage water of sorcery, what confusion and mischief your sly, rebellious drops do generate!”

      Yet the sort of plots and themes in their books are a lot alike.

      Dick Cavett’s show was marvelous. I have a DVD set with shows from the 60s and early 70s and return to it from time to time. He not only had great guests, but managed to get them to talk about more than the next album or movie. Snyder didn’t have Cavett’s wit, but he was very good with one-on-one interviews, and I frequently stayed up for him too. I don’t know if either would survive today.