Is Tom Robbins Just Ayn Rand for Hippies?

Reading between the lines.
June 5 2014 12:17 PM

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?

1406_SBR_TIBETAN_COVER

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.

Advertisement

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?

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Dec. 19 2014 4:15 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? Staff writer Lily Hay Newman shares what stories intrigued her at the magazine this week.