Arts: The Return of Tom Robbins

So lively of imagination, the Northwest literary icon finally confronts a duller subject—his own life.

As a general rule, writers shouldn’t write memoirs. Action types should write memoirs; they have lives to recall and justify. Writer writers—novelists above all—live in their heads, transforming their puny little lives into marvels of imaginative revenge on reality. A novelist writing a memoir is like a magician coming out onstage and giving away every single trick in the box. Aw, we say, is that all there was to it?

OK, that said, Tom Robbins’ new memoir Tibetan Peach Pie (Ecco, $27.99) has a lot more going for it than your typical fictioneer’s life record, where a dispute with your publisher over royalties is the equivalent of World War II. Robbins’ novels are not reprocessed from real life; they are more like annotated daydreams, in which events and characters are contemplated and commented on like a mediocre TV movie, and made touching and magical in the process.

Still, a memoir is a memoir, and Robbins dutifully fills the reader in on what it was like growing up in the seasonal mountain resort community of Blowing Rock, North Carolina—six months out of the year Hicksville, the other six a resort community to the very well-off citizens of where and where, fleeing the heat of the coastal Southland.

It turns out that life in Blowing Rock was not all that engaging, even for a dreamy boy like Robbins. The same has to be said for the dreamy boy’s later youth and young manhood. In fact, the story doesn’t begin to get engaging until about page 107 (of 363), when, for no good reason he can remember, Robbins moves to another hick burg, Seattle, in 1962; and even then I suspect readers dwelling elsewhere in our fair land will begin wondering when something—anything—of more than casual interest is going to happen.

What carries you through these early passages is the same thing that keeps you going in one of Robbins’ novels: the endlessly antic imagination of the writer. Robbins’ subjects can be pedestrian, but they are constantly buoyed by verbal prestidigitation that works on readers like the bubbles in champagne, teasing and urging them to engage their own imaginations in the game.

At its best it’s heady stuff, and even at its most banal it’s infectious, giddy-making. Robbins is king of the sidewinder simile, the mixologist’s metaphor. No other popular writer of our time depends as he does on pure verbal dazzle, or delivers as reliably on the deal.

That word-juggler’s dexterity must be native to Robbins’ soul, because it was already copiously on view in early art reviews for The Seattle Times in the ’60s. But it was ratified, reinforced by the writer’s encounter with LSD, which he regards as the most important event in his life. The story of that encounter is the real beginning of Robbins’ spiritual and artistic odyssey, and of his real and lasting impact on the town he lived in.

Seattle experienced a kind of renaissance in the visual arts in the late ’60s and ’70s, and part of the credit for the efflorescence has to go to Robbins. It takes several players to field an arts “scene”: artists to make the stuff; a public to consume it; and—explaining, encouraging, appreciating, and condemning—voices to make the whole absurd procedure seem important, meaningful. Robbins, almost on his own, supplied such a voice.

He didn’t restrict his voice to the pages of the Times, either. He collaborated with artists to produce events which shook staid artistic Seattle to its foundations. He hit the streets in person, playing Gandalf to a band of merry pranksters drawn from an increasingly visible and raucous social underground.

For me, most memorable by far was his role as broadcaster on KRAB-FM during the late ’60s. Like untold hundreds, thousands of others, I was dealing with the social turmoils of the time, working a straight job (campus cop) by day, by night experimenting with drugs and hanging out at Eagles Auditorium (now impeccably respectable again as ACT Theatre).

On his weekly Sunday-evening show, Robbins again played the interlocutor of the psychedelic vaudeville, playing the music you couldn’t hear elsewhere—Big Brother, the Doors, Country Joe, Jefferson Airplane—and talking about . . . oh, everything: repression and liberation, war and peace, drugs good and bad, the sheer stuffiness of Seattle, all in that gently querulous drawl he brought to town with him from Blowin’ Rock.

(By what seems miraculous serendipity, just one of those three-hour musico-philosophical marathons survives, and can be listened to in its entirety in the KRAB web archives at krab.fm/KRAB-Notes-From-The-Underground-With-Tom-Robbins.html.)

By the time the storm broke over Seattle—before the spring of the Duvall Piano Drop clogged the backroads of King County with intrepid would-be counterculturalists, before the 1968 Sky River Rock Festival pioneered the outdoor music fad, before the war came home at last to the campuses and streets of America—Robbins had left KRAB and was well launched into his new career as novelist, though neither he nor his admirers yet had the least idea just how long and fruitful that career would be.

Sadly, the life behind that career is not ideal material for Robbins’ peculiar genius. After an extended riff on how his first (and still best-known) work—Another Roadside Attraction—came to be written in 1971, soon after moving to La Conner, Tibetan Peach Pie returns to routine memoir mode, chronicling the author’s travels, friendships, and amours, with intermittent interruptions for “and then I wrote . . . ” reminiscences of books like Still Life With Woodpecker (1980) and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. (That one we excerpted in 1976, in the third issue of The Weekly, with the author on the cover and a long profile inside, written by yours truly.)

There are some high points along the way, like his interview with the FBI investigating the Unabomber, but by and large Robbins seems to find the road as long and laborious as the reader does.

With this command performance in the can, now age 81, Robbins has paid his insatiable fans the last tribute they can demand of him. If you need to hear him live again, by all means attend his Town Hall appearance later this month, sure to sell out. But you can hear the man loud and clear, any time you like, just by picking up one of his books.

books@seattleweekly.com

TOWN HALL 1119 Eighth Ave., 652-4255, townhallseattle.org. $5. 7:30 p.m. Thurs., June 26.

 
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