Beloved nov­el­ist’s ‘true sto­ries’ lack heart

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Dou­glas J. John­ston

AMER­I­CAN writer Tom Rob­bins main­tains this un­even collection is nei­ther au­to­bi­og­ra­phy nor mem­oir, but a com­pi­la­tion of “ab­so­lutely true sto­ries I’ve been telling the women in my life.” Rob­bins is the au­thor of eight nov­els over four decades. His first two, An­other Road­side At­trac­tion (1971) and Even Cow­girls Get the Blues (1976), made his name, mark­ing him as a coun­ter­cul­ture dar­ling. Ti­betan Peach Pie (the ti­tle’s al­luded to in­ter­mit­tently, but never ex­plained) un­folds chrono­log­i­cally. The early pieces about Rob­bins’ child­hood and early ado­les­cence in North Carolina and Vir­ginia are told in work­man­like prose, but rarely sing. Only once he re­counts his col­lege years, his mid-1950s stint in the air force in South Korea, and his ca­reer in news­pa­per jour­nal­ism ( Richmond Times-Dis­patch and Seat­tle Times) does he start to warm to his own story. Rob­bins has an an­noy­ing habit of pil­ing metaphor on metaphor: “From the be­gin­ning, imag­i­na­tion has been my wild card, my skele­ton key, my ser­vant, my mas­ter, my bat cave, my home en­ter­tain­ment cen­ter, my flota­tion de­vice, my syrup of wa­hoo...” It cre­ates the im­pres­sion he’s ei­ther over-en­am­oured of his ver­bal fa­cil­ity or wants to bat­ter the reader into un­der­stand­ing through rep­e­ti­tion. Ei­ther way, it in­ter­rupts the flow of the story he’s telling. He has a pen­chant for cheese­ball puns, hap­pily ac­knowl­edg­ing they’re cheese­ball, and think­ing the ac­knowl­edg­ment re­deems them. It doesn’t. Some of the worst-ren­dered episodes re­count trippy ad­ven­tures with psy­che­delic drugs, par­tic­u­larly LSD and magic mush­rooms. De­scrip­tions of how he dropped acid and be­came one with blos­som­ing flow­ers come off as bor­ing and silly: “When my eyes reached the end/be­gin­ning of the spi­ral, reached the very most pin­point cen­ter of the yel­low crown, I abruptly went into the daisy! That is, my con­scious­ness en­tered the daisy.” At var­i­ous points he en­coun­ters 1960s icons Ti­mothy Leary, Allen Gins­berg, Wil­liam F. Buck­ley and — two years be­fore the Tate-LaBianca mur­ders — Charles Man­son. In col­lege, at Vir­ginia’s Wash­ing­ton and Lee Univer­sity, his sports edi­tor at the stu­dent news­pa­per was a dap­per young man named T.K. Wolfe III, who went on to be bet­ter known as Bon­fire of the Van­i­ties au­thor Tom Wolfe. One of the best sto­ries is about his 1995 in­ter­ro­ga­tion by FBI agents as a sus­pect in the Un­abomber case. Shortly af­ter his ques­tion­ing, the real Un­abomber, Theodore (Ted) Kaczyn­ski, who planted and mailed home­made bombs that killed three and in­jured 23, was ar­rested. Ap­par­ently law en­force­ment had been alarmed by Rob­bins’ third novel, Still Life With Wood­pecker. Its “anti-author­i­tar­ian sen­ti­ments, the warn­ings against overde­pen­dence on tech­nol­ogy, the ro­man­ti­ciz­ing of out­laws, and, most tellingly, au­then­tic recipes for home­made bombs” put the feds on his tail. Rob­bins seems pos­sessed of an in­domitable spirit — some­times so in­domitable it strains cred­i­bil­ity. There’s a dearth of life’s hard knocks here; loss, grief, ill­ness and dis­ap­point­ment are largely ab­sent. At least a touch of them would have given the book a more nat­u­ral feel. And a more hon­est voice. Dou­glas J. John­ston is a Win­nipeg

lawyer and writer.

Ti­betan Peach Pie: A True Ac­count of an Imag­i­na­tive Life

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