Beloved novelist’s ‘true stories’ lack heart
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