I was talking with a friend recently about some short stories by an author who grew up in our hometown: see my post The Littlest Hitler by Ryan Boudinot. She asked if I liked Tom Robbins, who lives and writes near that same hometown. Of course, Tom Robbins is one of my favorite authors of all times. I loved reading Still Life with Woodpecker, Another Roadside Attraction, and Skinny Legs and All. I had all these books including Even Cowgirls get the Blues and Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas. Where are they now? I know I periodically purge my books at the urging of those I live with, but I definitely would not have gotten rid of those first three. It took a bit of thinking, but I realized I liked those books so much I had wanted to share them. I lent them out. And they never came back! I was especially dismayed when I remembered I had lent Still Life with Woodpecker to a person who then did a family member wrong. I know I will never see that book again.
Luckily, I found someone on paperbackswap.com who wanted to give away Still Life with Woodpecker and Another Roadside Attraction, so I can start building up my Tom Robbins collection again. And, I see he has another book out that I have yet to read called Villa Incognito.
So, what is so distinctive about Tom Robbins? Why was I so enthralled when I read Still Life with Woodpecker more than 20 years ago? Is it still timely? This particular book is an irreverent mix of sex, religion, travails about living in the Pacific Northwest, true love, the environment, and the power of pyramids. Princess Leigh-Cheri, daughter of a deposed king, grows up in rainy Seattle and meets Bernard Wrangle, an outlaw, at the Geo-Therapy Care Fest in Hawaii. Both have red hair. Bernard hides his hair color to keep from being arrested for his part in a previous bombing. He has spent many years in hiding after he injured a graduate student working on a male oral contraceptive. He has also tried to find other remedies after ending that work.
Bernard returns with Leigh-Cheri to Seattle, but his courtship of her does not go well. An example of this that has stuck with me for years, is this suggestion to King Max, Leigh-Cheri’s father:
“To the King, during tea, Bernard had advocated the planting of blackberries on every building top in Seattle. They would require no care, aside from encouraging them, arborlike, to crisscross the streets, roof to roof; to arch, forming canopies, natural arcades as it were. In no time at all, people could walk through the city in the downpouringest of winter and feel not a splat.”(pg 129)
With the planting of the blackberries, a new art form would be founded, with paintings done in pre- and post-blackberry light. A new food culture around blackberries would be instigated and it would no longer be possible to go hungry in Seattle. It is ideas like this that really drew me to Tom Robbins’ work; imagine an eco-friendly way to live in Seattle with no rain. Of course, King Max has spent his life in fear that he will be the first monarch to be assassinated by blackberries so that idea does not go down too well in the story.
The novel is set in the last quarter of the twentieth century and that idea comes up again and again. Here Leigh-Cheri summarizes her thoughts about being a princess.
“…and although in the last quarter of the twentieth century the very idea of royalty may seem artificial, archaic and somewhat decadent, I insist on my princess-hood because without it I’m just another physically attractive woman with that I-went-to-college-but-it-didn’t-do-me-any-good look and nothing much to offer anyone.” (pg 43)
The major question of the book is whether Leigh-Cheri and Bernard can make true love stay. The idea of a red-headed race from another planet, the coincidence of pyramids on the dollar bill and a Camel cigarette pack, the overthrow of the right-wing government in King Max’s homeland, a new fiancé, and a change of scenery to the desert are all secondary to this pivotal question. If you grew up in the 80’s without reading Tom Robbins or if you want to see what 1980’s concerns about the environment and even terrorism looked like, this book is for you, packaged in an bizarre tale of love.