Jitterbug Perfume, Tom Robbins

After my recent reread of Tom Robbins’ Another Roadside Attraction, I was apprehensive about rereading Jitterbug Perfume. I remembered it as a life changing book that I first encountered at the age of 24 when it was recommended to me by a man twice my age who, wearing a sweatshirt with Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice on the back, also introduced me to wine and food pairing (Chateau d’Yquem with magic mushrooms). He had a gorgeous Georgia drawl and a gold dragon ringed around his right index finger. He was most definitely a righteous representative of Robbins’ work.

At about the same time (1988) I’d discovered Joseph Campbell and was soaking up his book Myths to Live By. Jitterbug Perfume was the perfect fictional companion to Campbell’s non-fiction. I was experimenting with food combining, hiking mountains, meditation, sage burning and dabbing amber on my wrists. I’d just tried LSD. Basically, I was in prime position to enjoy Jitterbug Perfume to the fullest.

Robbins’ fourth novel features his usual verbal gymnastics, but unlike Another Roadside Attraction, the puns and metaphors don’t seem stretched and unnatural like a Chinese contortionist but fold almost seamlessly like an energetic yogi into the story. The book jumps section to section from one set of incredibly well-drawn and likable characters to another, but I never had the feeling of disappointment when the shifts between characters happened like I do in other books written this way. Each section is so enjoyable from its very first sentence that interest is easily maintained. There’s not the usual drag of having to get involved with a new set of characters.

At the end of the book, Robbins pulls together the ingredients of each character in an extremely satisfying and surprising way with vivid stew set in New Orleans. Like a delicious, spicy gumbo, he leaves the reader satisfied but still wanting more–it’s a book to look forward to reading and to dread finishing.

Along with the imaginative story told in such a highly entertaining fashion is a lot of great information on how to live and be happy. With happiness being one of the most written about themes in recent years, this novel remains absolutely relevant. From tips for health (breathing, hot baths, plentiful sex, intermittent fasting) to psychology (the importance of play, curiosity, independence and being “light”) the material in the book is the stuff of today’s self improvement podcasts–I wonder if Wim Hof and Tim Ferriss have read Jitterbug Perfume.

Some great quotes: Speaking about life extension, Wiggs Dannyboy believes, “…an organism steeped in pleasure is an organism disposed to continue….the will to live cannot be overestimated as a stimulant to longevity. Indeed, Dr. Dannyboy goes so far as to claim that ninety percent of all deaths are suicides. Persons who lack curiosity about life, who find minimal joy in existence are all too willing, subconsciously, to cooperate with–and attract–disease, accident and violence.”

The character of Alobar, the thousand year old man, vows, “in the future he would strive to keep that sense of play more in mind, for he’d grown convinced that play–more than piety, more than charity or vigilance–was what allowed human beings to transcend evil.”

Robbins continues, “Dr. Wiggs Dannyboy, lectured on college campuses everywhere, promoting with considerable flair the notion that certain drugs can raise consciousness and that persons with elevated consciousness are less apt to be violent, greedy, fearful or repressed.”

Another Dannyboy quote that my friends and I love is, “The rich are the most discriminated -against minority in the world. Openly or covertly, everybody hates the rich because, openly or covertly, everybody envies the rich. Me, I love the rich. Somebody has to love them. Sure, a lot o’ rich people are assholes, but believe me, a lot o’ poor people are assholes too, and an asshole with money can at least pay for his own drinks.”

The politics discussed in the book, mostly by the character of Wiggs Dannyboy, a mind-altering substance using anthropologist who runs an immortality research facility called the Last Laugh Foundation, are as fresh today as they were in 1984 when the book was written. Issues of race, drug laws, the nature of disease, cops killing black men, nostalgia for the 1960s, the pendulum swing between liberal and conservative in government are all put forth as if they were written in 2018. It’s uncanny and made the book all the more incredible to reread after 30 years.

I’ll end with one of the most beloved Wiggs Dannyboy quotes about psychedelic drug use, a quote that my friend with the Sorcerer’s Apprentice sweatshirt and the wine cellar full of First Growth Bordeaux had put down in calligraphy and hung on his rose-colored wall:

“Sure and they destroyed some cells and no doubt about it, but ’twas for the good. If you want your tree to produce plenty of fruit, you’ve got to cut it back from time to time. Same thing with your neural cells. Some people call it brain damage. I call it prunin’.”

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