WILD DUCKS FLY­ING BACK­WARD: THE SHORT WRIT­INGS OF TOM ROB­BINS

Tom Rob­bins. Ran­dom House

NZ Today - - ON BOOKS -

Tom Rob­bins has been adding his wide brush­strokes to the lit­er­ary can­vas for the last 35 years; pri­mar­ily as a nov­el­ist, but, as this in­ter­est­ing wee collection of­fers, he has also dab­bled as a poet, song­writer and jour­nal­ist.

Wild Ducks Fly­ing Back­ward col­lects Rob­bins’ var­i­ous ram­blings un­der the head­ings, ‘Travel Ar­ti­cles’ (which in­cludes a visit to the Canyon of the Vagi­nas), “Trib­utes” (un­der which Rob­bins sa­lutes all man­ner of folk, from McDon­alds fran­chise owner, Ray Kroc, to Leonard Co­hen, Jennifer Ja­son Leigh and De­bra Winger). “Sto­ries, Po­ems & Lyrics” of­fer ex­actly that - with the song lyrics rem­i­nis­cent of Kinky Fried­man and Rob­bie Fulks (that brand of pis­stake coun­try­poli­tan) while “Mus­ings & Cri­tiques” shows Rob­bins be­ing se­ri­ous (oc­ca­sion­ally) and look­ing at the wider art-world. The fi­nal sec­tion, “Re­sponses”, will draw Rob­bins’ fans in im­me­di­ately. Short, sharp and witty - this is Rob­bins at his best, re­spond­ing to ques­tions that in­clude: His favourite car? What is writer’s block? The func­tion of metaphor? And fi­nally the mean­ing of life…

Ok, so Rob­bins is not Woody Allen. But he can be damn funny. His travel writ­ing takes on the tone of P.J. O’Rourke with­out the overtly po­lit­i­cal con­cerns. His trib­utes are off-beat but on the money and his abil­ity to be su­per-crit­i­cal of other writ­ers and artists is a strong point.

The bril­liance of Tom Rob­bins as a nov­el­ist is one of a cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect - some sen­tences don’t make that much sense; some para­graphs are lu­di­crous - but his de­cep­tive abil­ity to con­struct a wildly imag­i­na­tive story and to tell it with ut­most sin­cer­ity, no mat­ter how far out his con­ceit takes him, is a skill that will al­ways be un­der-rated. This collection show­cases that flair in bite-sized pieces; where some of his one-lin­ers will break you up straight away; where he is also ca­pa­ble of pathos and frank dis­sec­tion.

Fi­nally, what mat­ters most about Rob­bins is the fact that he as­sures the reader, ev­ery step of the way (but with­out ever be­ing painfully self-ef­fac­ing) is that he doesn’t ac­tu­ally mat­ter. “The most use­ful thing about art is its use­less­ness” he be­gins in his bold anal­y­sis “What Is Art And If We Know What Art Is, What Is Pol­i­tics?” And he’s right. Art is not nec­es­sary, that is pre­cisely why it is pre­cious.

Ca­pa­ble of giv­ing you food for thought as well as a snack to chuckle over, Rob­bins’ short writ­ings are no slim pick­ings. And they serve as both the per­fect in­tro­duc­tion to a fine writer or a re­minder to head back to his nov­els and the film-adap­ta­tions if it’s been a while since you stopped in on Tom Rob­bins’ unique place in the lit­er­ary world. Si­mon Sweet­man

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