Cowgirls May Get the Blues, but Not Tom Robbins, Who Pours It on in Jitterbug Perfume
04/01/1985 at 01:00 AM EST
The well-respected, best-selling novelist is graying and pushing 50. He lives quietly in a small fishing village in the rural Northwest. He watches his diet, worries about his weight and is careful not to drink to excess. He's a dutiful father and a part-time painter. He's quit riding motorcycles, preferring to collect toy replicas. He is neither flamboyant nor terribly neurotic. He thinks a lot about death. His name is Tom Robbins.
Holy Hankshaw, you say. Not Tom Robbins, the perennial flower child and wild blooming Peter Pan of American letters? The enfant incroyable who slurps the language and gurgles it and spews it all over the page? Who dips history's pigtails in weird ink and splatters his graffiti over the face of modern fiction? Who fingerpaints the great themes? Who lets reason fly like a flatulent balloon? That Tom Robbins? Sure, you say. And Hunter Thompson is a teetotaler; Kurt Vonnegut's joined the Marines and Norman Mailer's taking assertiveness training.
But it is so: Tom Robbins, the loon who has run wild on the far fringe of the Establishment ever since his first novel, Another Roadside Attraction, was published 14 years ago, is now 48 and settled. His fourth novel, Jitterbug Perfume (Bantam, $15.95), has been bobbing up and down on best-seller lists. This happy sail into the sweet waters of the literary mainstream comes after his reputation slid below the surface in the less-than-glowing reviews that attended the publication of 1980's Still Life With Woodpecker, a work so eagerly awaited that the author commanded a $165,000 advance.
The public's enduring faith in the author was no doubt buoyed by memories of his second and most famous novel, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. The bizarre saga of Sissy Hankshaw, Bonanza Jellybean and a bunkhouse full of bisexual soothseekers was published in 1976 in a trade paperback edition heralded by such high-watt illuminati as Graham Greene, Auberon Waugh and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
Now praise for Jitterbug abounds. "The real joy" of the book, purred the Washington Post, "is the mesmerizing flow of remarkable observations and fresh similes." Detroit Free Press reviewer Gary Blonston admitted, "It isn't easy to explain Tom Robbins' books." So saying, he proffered the best summary of Jitterbug: "It is about beet pollen. And a thousand-year-old man. And three succulent women, and one aging fat one. And Pan, and perfume, and Paris, and permanence, and perfidy. And sex."
While Robbins might enjoy being remembered as America's first "beet poet," his latest book deals with a subject much less tasty, namely, the End. Robbins says he doesn't want to deny death. "I want to defeat it. [Religions] make us feel okay about dying. I think it's time we start doing something about it. I think science has begun to demonstrate that aging is a disease. If it is, it can be cured."
In the village of La Conner (pop. 639), Wash. Robbins leads a life of quiet normality, far from celebrity-mad crowds. "In Seattle or L.A.," says Robbins, "they either butter you up or stab you in the back—sometimes both at the same time. In La Conner, when they see me on the street, they talk to me about volleyball."
That's because he captains a local volleyball team called the Fighting Vegetables (the team cheer is "Raw veggies!") and is regarded as just another town eccentric. Robbins strolls the banks of the Swinomish channel or drops in at the 1890 Inn, where he can chat with pals but declines to down the house specialty, a Grand Marnier-Tia Maria concoction called "Even Cowgirls Get the Booze." At home he relaxes among his Andy Warhol silkscreens and his collections of toys and rubber stamps. Walking around town in a pink sweater and wearing socks decorated with little red hearts, Robbins is, by all outward appearances, a regular guy. But scratch the surface and you find the creator of Alobar, the ancient king who discovers the secrets of immortality in an aroma, of Priscilla Partido, Daughter of the Daily Special, and of Dr. Wiggs Dannyboy and the other strange characters who populate Jitterbug.
In truth, Robbins' rap hasn't changed all that much: "I still regard LSD as right up there with the microscope and the telescope as an instrument of exploration." Cocaine, on the other hand, is "an ugly, insidious drug" that "tears holes in your aura." Religions should "call a moratorium on belief in an afterlife. It causes hell on earth because people will put up with any amount of oppression or repression if they believe that when they die they'll be free and happy."
Robbins aims his most savage salvos at his comrades. "I don't hang out with writers," he says. "Two-thirds of today's major writers are drunks. Alcoholism is a disease. Therefore, what we have in America right now is a diseased literature. Most novelists write about twisted lives. As a character in Jitterbug Perfume says, 'Unhappiness is the ultimate self-indulgence.' You should deal with your problems and turn them from lead into gold. Most novels are turning lead into lead."
Robbins' books have long resisted the odd alchemy needed to strike gold in Hollywood. Though Shelley Duvall and Debra Winger have been involved with projects based on his work, the author has yet to see one production come to fruition. "I just sold an option to a group headed by Daryl Hannah," he says. "She wants to play Sissy Hankshaw, and she'd be good at it. But I'll believe it the night I have to decide what to wear to the premiere."
A former Air Force meteorologist and newspaper art critic, Robbins lives alone in a hillside house where a frequent visitor is his 13-year-old son, Fleetwood Star Robbins, to whom Cowgirls was dedicated. Fleetwood, who lives nearby with Robbins' ex-wife, Terrie, is, Dad says, an aspiring ski bum and wrestler who brings his father along for out-of-town wrestling meets. Watching from the side during one match recently, Robbins asked, "Who does he think I am? John Irving? Ken Kesey?"
Robbins is presently courting a 25-year-old NYU graduate student named Kitty Wiesenthal; she is, he says, "an incredible mix of sensuality and intelligence." They met on a rafting trip in Tanzania. "I named a constellation in the Southern skies after her," Robbins says. "That got her attention. I called it Kitty's Corner. It sounds like a truck stop where you'd find an all-lesbian polka band." Some romantics never grow up.