Strange Beast

What happens when a 20-year-old constructs his personality completely out of reading Tom Robbins novels?

Illustration by Liana Finck.

Illustration by Liana Finck

Tom Robbins is not into critics. He’s made this clear in his novels, and he reiterates it several times in his new “not-a-memoir”-but-come-on-it’s-totally-a-memoir, Tibetan Peach Pie. A few pages in, and he’s already telling a story comparing critics to a bully in his Appalachian childhood who punched Robbins in the face, shattered his glasses, and somehow wound up with a shard of glass in his own eye. “Take heed, ye foul-spirited critics,” Robbins warns. “Scurrilous attacks have been known to backfire”

Yikes! Just getting warmed up, and I’m already being threatened with glass shards to the eye? From the guy widely considered a hippie novelist? And wait, isn’t there a big chunk of the book that talks about his experiences as an art critic?

Tibetan Peach Pie is a strange beast—not surprising, since Tom Robbins himself is a strange beast. Robbins really has led an interesting, unusual life, and he relates it in the same style he’s used in his novels, a goofily overheated prose that suggests somewhere deep inside Robbins’ brain is a little engineer staring at the simile gauges and muttering nervously that she canna take no more, Captain. We get several vignettes of Robbins’ self-described “hillbilly” childhood in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, many of them involving traveling circuses. We hear about enormous rum stashes and catastrophic fires as methods to deal with military school. We hear about brushing elbows with big man on campus Tom Wolfe, who took to the rigid dress code of Washington and Lee University much more readily than Robbins did. We learn about Robbins’ stint in the Air Force, where he was briefly the guy at Strategic Air Command headquarters who had to stay on top of the current weather situation in the Soviet Union in case bombers needed to be routed in.

But lots of people lead long and interesting lives. Two hundred pages into the book, Robbins finally gets to the things that make people care: his novels. Robbins’ books are built around very specific theses about how the world works—they rail about how the government or church or dominant culture will be telling us one thing, but reality lies in a different direction. He’s one of those writers who just clicks, and clicks hard, with some people. And those people are often high school or college kids figuring out how the world works and where they fit into it. Such as, not that long ago, me. If the hallucinatory and conversational Tibetan Peach Pie stands as a summation of Tom Robbins’ work, it’s natural that reading it made me start reflecting: What had been the effect, over the years, of putting all of this stuff in my head?

Growing up in pre-Internet rural Nebraska, I had to take my cultural inputs where I could find them. I was in high school, consuming a reading diet of Tom Clancy and Stephen King, when an older friend lent me a copy of Robbins’ Skinny Legs and All. For a 16-year-old from the sticks, it was mind-blowing. Why had no one told me that books like this existed? The main character was an abstract artist who had unusual (by teenage rural Nebraskan standards) sex! There were informative digressions about the history of the Middle East and the matriarchal religions that got screwed over by Christianity! There was a crazy, evil preacher and all kinds of end-times prophecy action! Several of the main characters were talking inanimate objects!

In a town so buttoned up that MTV was deemed too hot for the local cable feed, this was heady, dangerous stuff. I was hooked, and spent the next few years reading and rereading the Robbins canon, incorporating pretty much every word he put down into the version of myself that I presented to the world through my 20s.

So what are Tom Robbins novels like? For the most part, they’re very consistent. There’s a primary character who has the potential to be very cool but buys into society’s BS and, as a result, is just a little too square and uptight. There’s a sardonic, experienced, enlightened figure who’ll go through some series of adventures with the first character, slowly delivering enlightenment along the way (often via sex). There’s some psychedelic MacGuffin that everyone’s chasing—examples include a flock of whooping cranes, a jade enema nozzle, a (talking) conch shell, and a lost prophecy of the Virgin of Fatima. There will be info dumps about religions, science, and the nature of reality. Someone will drop acid or eat mushrooms. There will be witty prose and wild similes. And there will be boning—frequent, frequent boning.

Build a personality out of these bricks, then, and you’ll get a very specific kind of guy. In my case, my Robbins phase left me very passionate about making and appreciating art. It left me suspicious of consumer society, skeptical of authority (particularly governmental authority), and completely uninterested in participating in any organized religion. Other Robbins fans I’ve known through the years fell very much along the same lines.

These aren’t bad traits to have; I feel like they served me well, and continue to, even if I’ve toned down the intensity on most of them. There’s a bit from Skinny Legs where a character boils the artistic process down to simply thinking of something that you wish existed but doesn’t, and making it happen; this philosophy motivates me in one way or another pretty much every day. But, unfortunately, that’s not all you pick up from mainlining Robbins at a young age.

Imagine this: You’re a nerdy high school kid who doesn’t date much. You read Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas and observe the hero running around calling women things like “pussy sugar”—and the women always dig it. You devour Another Roadside Attraction, where a character proclaims, “The only meat in the world sweeter, hotter, and pinker than Amanda’s twat is Carolina barbecue.” How highly evolved are your notions of gender relations going to be? And exactly how smooth are you going to be when you get to college and start dating?

The painful process of learning that women in the real world don’t want to be called “pussy sugar” is, in the end, not the biggest issue with Robbins’ books. That problem solves itself after a couple of dates. There’s a related but larger problem, one that runs a lot deeper and is much more devastating to realize applies to you: Buying too much of Robbins’ program can make you a smug jerk.

As mentioned before, the standard setup of a Robbins novel involves an “enlightened” character shattering paradigms and hectoring the unenlightened with lengthy harangues about how it all really works, man. Often the unenlightened character or some stuffy bystander will counter with weak straw-man arguments in favor of the status quo, just to be ripped apart by the hero. It’s tempting to say that a tone of “wake up, sheeple!” persists, but that’s not quite accurate; the Robbins hero is generally trying to wake up (and bone) one particular sheeple, and the masses are on their own. Someone taking the behavior of a Robbins hero into the real world would get punched a lot, or at least receive a lot of angry middle fingers.

Author Tom Robbins.
Author Tom Robbins.

Photo courtesy Jeff Corwin

For me, the first break with wholesale adoration of Robbins came during a mid-20s reread of Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas. Specifically, a scene where the hero, Larry Diamond (he of the “pussy sugar” endearment), uses a complicated metaphor involving turds and pepperonis in paper bags to illuminate that the homeless are responsible for their own plight. That jarred me; self-assured libertarian victim-blaming didn’t sound like part of a creative hippie program that I wanted to be part of. It sounded like that other formative writer for early-twentysomethings, Ayn Rand.

From there, I started noticing a lot of weird similarities between Robbins’ oeuvre and Rand’s: Both writers use their novels to push a philosophical program, putting their ideas into the mouths of viewpoint characters who go around outarguing unbelieving fools. Both engender a sense that the reader, by choosing to read this book, is one of the enlightened elect in a sea of idiots. I began to recognize that I was modeling this behavior myself; if friends were discussing events in the Middle East, it was just a matter of time before I’d shut down the conversation by parroting some of Robbins’ factually dubious history of Palestine from Skinny Legs and All.

I had the inside scoop, knew the secret history, and—I realized—was pretty damned smug about it. And once I recognized it in myself, I was horrified to see just how much self-congratulation permeates Robbins’ work.

Years later, it’s easy to see in Tibetan Peach Pie. Take the moment when he digresses from a vivid description of his first acid trip to throw down some scientifically shaky truth that could come straight from one of his heroes’ monologues:

It has occurred to me that the so-called hallucinations commonly associated with psychedelic ingestion are in fact diversionary tactics on the part of the ultraconservative human DNA, whose primary objective is always preservation of the species. … When subjected to LSD, there is a portion of our brain that, failing to scare us into a “bad trip,” will then roll out amazing fractal 3-D cartoons, hoping that by sufficiently entertaining us, it can divert us from the existential truths the fungoid alkaloids seem mysteriously designed to uncover. For its narrow interests, our DNA puts on a show, hoping to head off a psychic jailbreak.

Don’t worry, Tom Robbins has got this: The truth is out there, and it’s all fungus versus DNA.

Or, on the pure self-congratulation front, consider the bit where Robbins asserts that his work is of such a rare quality that his editors have little to do but rubber-stamp his manuscripts. “It didn’t take me long to conclude that this was the only sensible approach to editing this book of yours,” Robbins quotes his Cowgirls editor as saying. “No editor can hope to impose his will on a performance like this one. We’ve got to let Tom run.” The process, Robbins notes, was “unexpectedly painless.”

Throughout Robbins’ memoir, these self-aggrandizing nuggets are hopelessly intertwined with the many fun and interesting tales. But I find myself less bothered by the elements of woo-woo smugness in Tibetan Peach Pie than I expected to be. This is what happens when you let Tom run. Yes, if you had to drive across the country with him, you’d be considering self-immolation after the 20th rambling, emphatic story about encountering the true nature of reality while doing mushrooms. But the first 15 iterations would be pretty lively.

The picture of Robbins that emerges from this memoir is that of an unruly, creative weirdo, and as a great admirer of unruly, creative weirdos I now recognize that being kind of annoying goes with the territory. The man at least has the courage of his convictions. If he leads a few young people astray in a formative moment, so be it; that’s a necessary stage on the road to becoming an unruly, creative weirdo yourself. I think Robbins, if asked, would argue that a few jerks are a fair price to pay for a world with unusual people in it. And I’m pretty sure I’d agree.

Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life by Tom Robbins. Ecco.

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