Another Roadside Attraction, Tom Robbins

I was really looking forward to rereading the four Tom Robbins novels I’ve treasured since 1988 (Another Roadside Attraction, 1971; Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, 1976; Still Life with Woodpecker, 1980; Jitterbug Perfume, 1984). I was never a fan of his later books, which started to seem stale and formulaic to me and so took the magic out of his loopy, genius metaphors and fantastic mix of myth, science, philosophy and magic. So when I started reading my battered paperback copy of Another Roadside Attraction, I was afraid I might have outgrown Robbins, or maybe that the late 1960s-early 1970s hallucinatory hijinks may not have aged well, or that post reading Ulysses and present North Korea/Trump shenanigans might have swiped any patience I have left for linguistic, idealistic antics.

I had to settle into it. ARA is steeped in the 1971 issues and aesthetic (the main characters, when introduced are wearing the following: John Paul Ziller sports a magicians cape and a green loincloth while Amanda is braless in a sheer chemise). I’m still incredibly attracted to the way Robbins mixes magic, myth and music and art with science and politics. He sprinkles Greek and Latin botanical names of plants and animals throughout and there is a (not too) lengthy description of the monarch butterfly’s migration abilities and patterns. I like the fact that with Robbins you learn through being highly entertained.

Tom Robbins is 85 now. 85!!! That is cuh-razy. His reputation is that of a super-sexual, puer eternis, word wizard. I can see by current photos that he dyes his hair and his beard, so he is definitely invested in the youthful image. Some great quotes from Tom over the years:

“We waste time looking for the perfect lover, instead of creating the perfect love.”

I guess that’s the attraction to Robbins for me–and thousands if not millions of others. We’ve wasted a lot of time pining for Mr/Ms perfect when they don’t exist. At one point in Another Roadside Attraction John Paul Ziller has beads of plum juice hanging from his moustache. If I were his wife I’d be nagging, “Wipe your mouth. And go shave that thing off.”

He also has stated:

“It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.”

“Humanity has advanced, when it has advanced, not because it has been sober, responsible, and cautious, but because it has been playful, rebellious, and immature.”

Apparently, the issues of the early 1970s are still issues. Certainly the aesthetic has made a comeback; I myself have indulged in hip hugger bell bottoms for a few years now and love them. I’m a sucker for anything hand embroidered, and the canvas jumpsuit featuring a watercolor scene and embroidered butterflies that Amanda wears sounds worthy of the Summer of Love exhibit at the DeYoung.

Ziller and Amanda are joined by a character named Plucky Purcell. I have a hunch Plucky was inspired by fellow Northwesterner, prankster, drug imbiber/provider and bus driving writer, Ken Kesey. What made me tune in to that is that Plucky works in logging and at one point Ziller says “I haven’t got a notion,” in relation to Plucky. Kesey wrote a book about loggers called “Sometimes a Great Notion.” I thought maybe these bits were Easter eggs Robbins tossed into his first novel as a tip of his hat to Kesey. I couldn’t find anything online to prop up my suspicions, and since Robbins is ancient, I doubt I will ever get to ask him about it. I did find a photo of Robbins and Kesey together. Hmm…

Robbins moves the plot along by leaping riff to riff. It can get a little tedious. He riffs on gonorrhea and cockroaches. He riffs on think tanks and Christianity. But his renegade heart, relentless mind and lusty humor help him to get away with it.

Robbins is very much a writer of a place. Even though he was born in North Carolina and has lived many places, he settled in Washington State, and his novels usually have at least some connection to Seattle and its environs. He can talk bout rain like no other:

“And then the rains came. They came down from the hills and up from the Sound. And it rained a sickness. and it rained a fear. And it rained an odor. And it rained a murder. And it rained dangers and pale eggs of the beast.

Rain fell on the towns and on the fields. It fell on the tractor sheds and the labyrinth of sloughs. Rain fell on toadstools and ferns and bridges. It fell on the head of John Paul Ziller.

…And it rained an omen. And it rained a poison. And it rained a pigment. And it rained a seizure….”

I love this word choice, repetition and prose poetry which adds to and doesn’t stall the momentum of the novel (Robbins stalls the momentum later with some of Marx Marvelous’ rants, but not when he talks about the rain.)

A major point is made near the middle of the book, when Marx Marvelous (described as a cherubic, “natty” dresser and “failed both as a genius and a rogue”) states, “An individual who is spiritually secure is not usually an individual who goes to pieces easily. The same might be said for a nation.” He then goes on to lecture in lengthy fashion (not John Galt “Atlas Shrugged” lengthy, but still, as James Joyce would say, periphrastic) on Christianity and its seeming (to him) death.

Here the book shows its years. Who would think that five decades after the Age of Aquarius, Christianity would still be ruling the roost? Marx says, “Technological upheaval and religious upheaval are always inseparable overlays.” From Galileo to space exploration it seemed that humans were drifting away from the need for religion toward a respect for science. However, what would Mr. Marvelous think about the rabidly Christian alt-Right and the iPhone? Technology as bright and shiny consumable object has somehow swung us back to the dark ages, spiritually. Priests molesting children can’t kill it. The Christian alt-Right see no contradiction in a president who is both an admitted pussy grabber and known adulterer but also a self-proclaimed Christian. Now here I go digressing rantily.

At one point following the Christianity riff/rant, Amanda offers her odiferous handkerchief to Marx Marvelous as some funky aromatherapy. The description of the hanky’s aromas prefigure the Pan-juicy musk of Robbins’ fourth novel, Jitterbug Perfume. A few lines later is a reference to Tibetan Peach Pie, which would be the title of his memoir 43 years later. For all its flaws, Another Roadside Attraction may be Robbin’s most personal work and contains the germs of all his future works. He even married a very Amanda like woman, a psychic with the very Amanda-like name Alexa d’Avalon. There is no question for me that Marx Marvelous is a Tom Robbins alter-ego, straddling the worlds of science and myth/magic.

Robbins came late, age 39, to novel writing, and ARA reads as if he is afraid he will never write another book and has to fit every joke, tangential idea, clever thought and bit of wordplay into this one, all leading to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ (for goodness sake). If I remember correctly, he relaxes somewhat in the next few books and keeps the tangents under better control.

More fabulous writing about Washington State:

“October lies on the Skagit like a wet rag on a salad. Trapped beneath low clouds, the valley is damp and green and full of sad memories. The people of the valley have far less to be unhappy about than many who live elsewhere in America, but, still, an aboriginal sadness clings like the dew to their region; their land has a blurry beauty (as if the Creator started to erase it but had second thoughts), it has dignity, fertility and hints of inner meaning–but nothing can seem to make it laugh.”

His descriptions of characters are memorable and unique. Unlike many authors, Robbins isn’t afraid to give a lot of detail about his characters’ appearances, even compare them to a famous actor or athlete. I really appreciate being given the tools to clearly picture a character. I hate it when I finish a book and have absolutely no idea what the protagonist I’ve spent the last two weeks with looks like. Here’s Plucky Purcell:

“…he resembled the actor Paul Newman, except that Purcell’s cheekbones were higher than Newman’s and his nose more aristocratic. Then he smiled. His smile was not like Paul Newman’s. His smile was not aristocratic. His smile was like a splash of ham gravy on a Statue of Liberty necktie.”

Hmmm, Paul Newman directed and starred in the movie of Ken Kesey’s book, Sometimes a Great Notion (1970). Could be another Easter egg strengthening my hunch that Purcell is based on Kesey.

Finally at page 300 of a 337 page book (battered paperback edition), we get to the nut of the matter and I also remember why I loved this book so much when I came upon it in 1988. It’s a scene imagined by Marx Marvelous in which Tarzan encounters Jesus who is fasting in the desert. They talk about Pan, the pungent half man half flute playing goat (union of nature and culture) demigod who plays a huge part in my favorite Robbins novel, Jitterbug Perfume.

This is one tangent that is totally engrossing, at least for me, because it is all about how Christianity was the death knell for paganism and as Robbins says, we replaced reverence for the nature and an understanding of the vegetative life cycle with a phallic abstraction and a belief that man is deservedly at the top of the food chain and can disrupt nature any way he sees fit. The whole discussion, which I wish I had the patience to retype here, should be something I reread once a year to remind myself why I don’t cotton to organized religion and that I need to make a daily effort to stay in sync with nature.

Another fantastic description of a Washington State morning: “The day was rumpled and dreary. It looked like Edgar Allan Poe’s pajamas.” Everything is great about those sentences. The rhythm. The reference. The image.

I tried to read Robbins’ memoir Tibetan Peach Pie recently and it doesn’t hold up at all to his fiction or his earlier–like 20 years earlier–non-fiction. I don’t hold it against him, it just makes me sad. I think the lack of impact is a combination of aging–most of us lose our speed and agility–and fame–most of those that become famous can’t help but believe their own press and become bloated, repetitive, flaccid. It happens to both the body and the mind and it’s a tough fight for all of us, famous or not. It would be difficult to turn down the money and adoration and stop doing what you did so well. Grace of Monaco did it, but other than that I can’t think of anyone who quit while they were ahead and went on living.

Robbins wrote in the intro to the memoir (which he doesn’t want to be called a memoir, but a book about your own life, well, call it whatever you want, it’s a memoir) that the women in his life begged him to write it. Who are the women in his life? Besides his wife, there’s his assistants, yoga teacher, personal trainer…yuck. Sometimes you shouldn’t know too much about your heroes.

I much prefer biography to autobiography. I’d suggest that if you’re famous, just leave enough bread crumbs behind so that somebody else can tell your tale for you.

The end of Another Roadside Attraction is surprisingly sad and moving. [Spoiler alert–read no further if you haven’t finished the book.]

Plucky Purcell dies by gunfire while helping Ziller and Mon Cul the baboon get the corpse on to a balloon intended to be sent into the stratosphere by NASA. The end of the book references the horrors of experiments done on intelligent animals and animal extinction, the military and its foibles, and suicide missions–Ziller and the baboon will die and be turned to dust by exposure to solar radiation, along with the body of Christ that Purcell liberated from the Vatican catacombs. They will ascend to heaven, but there will be no resurrection. They’ll leave no trace and they’ll both be missed.

Amanda finally has sex with Marx Marvelous, but they don’t end up together. She is pregnant by Purcell or Ziller, so one of their lives will continue in an obvious way, but I leave the book with a deep sadness for the female character, who has–no matter how free spirited she is–given so much to these men and has been deserted by them.

I find it a very sexist ending, and a hopeless one. But I finished the book as Hurricane Harvey finished drenching Houston and Hurricane Irma prepares to tussle with southern Florida after kicking the Caribbean’s ass. Trump is still American Unimpeached Pie and Kim Jong Un is grinning over the prospect of decimating Guam. I’m always on the verge of tears these days. Though eleven years sober, I’m feeling the need for a mushroom holiday, a little ritual to tune back in to the natural world. I think I’ll read a few more books before I make the leap, maybe the rest of my Robbins, some Terence McKenna and the complete lyrics of the Grateful Dead.

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