April 27, 2015 | The Crew
It’s impossible for me to write about Tom Robbins without getting personal. I’ll get to Tibetan Peach Pie, but bear with me briefly.
Throughout my childhood Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Jitterbug Perfume, Skinny Legs and All, and Another Roadside Attraction were mainstays of the Hehn Family Library alongside the Golden Books of Knowledge, several Calvin and Hobbes anthologies, the Bible, and Rush Limbaugh’s The Way Things Ought to Be. I was an early and curious reader, and while I plowed through the Golden Books, devoured Calvin and Hobbes, and muddled through Rush and Genesis, I stayed away from the Robbins books. They seemed dangerous somehow. It might have been that the cover of Cowgirls featured a woman straddling the moon and Skinny Legs showed a belly dancer, and I knew that if just the covers made me blush that much, imagine what the words would do to me. So they remained on the shelf for years while I read Goosebumps and Beverly Cleary and most of the Star Wars novels.
When I was fourteen or so, my mother (for reasons even she cannot explain) handed me her copy of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. “I think you’ll like this,” she said. Already struggling with my newfound pubescent pudginess, pimplyness, and “feelings,” the ménage à trios (two gals, one guy) on what seemed like the first page confirmed what I’d already intuited about Tom Robbins. He was dangerous. I wasn’t ready for it.
Flash forward some fourteen years and Tom Robbins looms as significantly on my own Mental Shelf of Literary Heroes as he did in that old Hehn Family Library. I love the guy. I approached Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life half-excited to peek behind the magician’s curtain, half-nervous that I might not like what I saw. We want our heroes to stay heroes.
I’m half-delighted to report that Mr. Robbins still has the writerly chops that simultaneously make his fans love him while sending Old Guard Literature snobs into fits. I’m half-saddened to inform you that Mr. Robbins’ real life is much less interesting than the lives of his characters. I half-expected that to be the case.
There’s a reason I’ve delved into my personal history with Tom Robbins. Before I started reading Tibetan Peach Pie I called my mom to ask why she liked him so much, why she had so many of his books because, honestly, I don’t know why I like him so much. “I guess it’s probably because I’ve got a screw loose. I think you have to have a screw loose if you like Tom Robbins.” Even he admits in the preface that any household in which his name is spoken with any regularity is “likely under police surveillance.” Thing is, Robbins fans are sort of cultish, or perhaps anti-cultish since being a Robbins fan means you don’t buy in to the way everybody else sees things. If you’re reading this review, it’s probably because you already like Tom Robbins. And if you’re reading this, it’s likely you’ve already purchased the book or will do so as soon as your paycheck drafts on Friday. That said, in keeping with Tom Robbins’ spirit when he insists that Tibetan Peach Pie is neither an autobiography nor a memoir, this is not a review. It’s more of a Guide for What to Expect. Because I know you’re expecting something from this lengthy tome. And I tell you, friend, it ain’t no Jitterbug Perfume. Besides, the author himself gives guys like me fair warning on page eight, plain as day: “Take heed, ye foul-spirited critics. Scurrilous attacks have been known to backfire.”
Perhaps the most shocking revelation of Tibetan Peach Pie is that Tom Robbins was born in 1932. For those keeping score, that means he’s lived through the Great Depression, the Second World War, the Beatle Invasion, the Beat Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, Korea, Vietnam, the Summer of Love, the Moon Landing, Disco, the ‘80s, the Gulf War, September 11th, and is currently dusting off the Great Recession with the rest of us. It’s remarkable to read a book by someone who has experienced so much yet come through them so seemingly unchanged. He was an art critic, but never a snob. He protested with Ginsberg, but he wasn’t a Beatnik. He smoked dope and loved freely, but he wasn’t a hippy. He was pretty heavily involved in military intelligence, but the only evidence we have of the impact of his service is when he dons his old uniform to appear as a more trustworthy hitchhiker.
Expectations are a hell of a thing, and what I expected was some loopy, left-field commentary on the most influential events and actors of the modern age. Well, I guess that’s what I get for putting limitations on the guy whose books refuse to fit neatly into any category of literature.
Tibetan Peach Pie is not a diatribe on the foibles and follies and triumphs and ironies of simultaneously the most backward and technologically advanced civilization known to man. It’s also not a book that tells us much of anything about how his beloved novels came to be. Instead, it’s like sitting on the porch with a very interesting and lucid 82-year-old who likes mushrooms and women and dabbling in religious traditions, sipping rum gimlets while he tells story after story, some good, some not so good.
When you’re dealing with a guy like that, you’re willing to wade through the stories about ex-wives and car trouble because you know, eventually, he’ll hit some gem about being harassed by Tuareg antique dealers in Timbuktu and tell you what it was like to work under a young Tom Wolfe at his college undergrad newspaper. You’ll zone out at times, then he’ll tell you about being implicated in the Unibomber Attacks, very nearly seducing one of his FBI Inquisitors in the process.
More than anything, you’ll walk away from Tibetan Peach Pie with an understanding of why Tom Robbins is the way he is. If you’re like me, one of the reasons you admire (and possibly envy) him is for his ability to withhold judgment of people and things. He’s an all-inclusive novelist, making a cozy home on the page for misfits and pariahs, for alternative interpretations of Christ, for a more profound appreciation of the oft-scorned mushroom. Although, as I said, his real life is generally less interesting than the lives of his characters, he has applied the same underdog/all-inclusive sensibility to his own life, and perhaps that’s why none of the great cultural movements of the last eight decades have worn off on him. Instead of holding up a mirror to say, “Hey, people of Earth. Look at yourselves!”, He holds up a big, red arrow and says, “Hey, people of Earth! Put down the Kool-Aid! Look what you’re missing!”
I hesitate to say that there’s a theme to this book—it seems all autobiography/memoir is required to stick to a theme, usually “triumph over adversity,” be it grizzly bears or paparazzi—but he most definitely repeats one idea throughout the book which relates to what I’ve said above. Very early on he describes his childhood home in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. For nine months of the year Blowing Rock was a regular Appalachian town. During summers, it was overrun by vacationing megarich families. One day Blowing Rock was packed with R.J. Reynolds & Family puttering around in the Rolls Royce, money and opulence flooding out of the drop top; the next was back to the workaday routine of Appalachian life. From that early experience, he was acutely aware of impermanence, of cycles of change, of the certainty of uncertainty. The workaday North Carolinians are just as valuable as the megarich vacationers. It’s a lesson most of us never learn. Or, if we do learn it, we struggle putting it into practice.
I knew Tom Robbins was dangerous just by looking at his book covers as a pre-teen. Likewise, an Italian critic once called him “the most dangerous writer in the world” because of his fearlessness in writing about love. I think the real danger of reading Tibetan Peach Pie is in having Tom Robbins rub off on you, in realizing how beautiful life is when you accept that every moment is fleeting and mutable. My God! Imagine what a world it would be if we all lived like that! Unshackled by pretense! Answering only to our own free will! Chaos!
The thing is, it comes naturally for Tom Robbins. The rest of us have to work at it.