WILD DUCKS FLYING BACKWARD: THE SHORT WRITINGS OF TOM ROBBINS
Tom Robbins. Random House
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