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