Appreciation: The Seattle Times' longtime rock critic, Patrick
MacDonald, has a deep appreciation for author Tom Robbins and his
works, including "Another Roadside Attraction" and "Even Cowgirls Get
September 14, 2008
By Patrick MacDonald
Seattle Times music critic
Tom Robbins worked on the copy desk at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer
when I talked my way into writing for the paper, at the age of 17. It
amazes me now that one of my favorite authors actually edited my
sorry copy when I was a rank amateur. Actually, I was glad it was him
because he appreciated what I was writing about rock 'n' roll and
could catch my mistakes. Plus he added great headlines.
I didn't know at the time that he was a novelist I was soon to find
out but Robbins' talents intimidated me nonetheless because he was
a prime figure in the local counterculture. At the 1967 Trips
Festival at Eagles Auditorium, he presented "Family Entertainment," a
play with four characters repeating "mommy," "daddy," "bowwow" and "I
love you." He curated exhibits at the city's hippest art galleries;
reviewed art for the P-I; and wrote for The Helix, the underground
paper. He wore the coolest clothes to the office shirts with
brightly colored floral patterns, vinyl ties (regular, bow and bolo),
cowboy boots, a Panama hat and he spoke in a cool, slow, Southern drawl.
Comparing his Helix story about Jimi Hendrix's first show here in
1968 to mine in the P-I, I realized how much more talented,
intelligent and perceptive he was. So I was honored when I actually
got to join him on the roof of the P-I once to sip tea made from
marijuana shake (leaves, stems and seeds) and smoke prime Moroccan hashish.
Actually, it was a copy boy named Jeff who brought the tea and
invited me to the roof, but it was the first time I got to actually
chat with Robbins. He was quiet and shy, so when he said something,
it was special. I hung on his every word. And I remember laughing a lot.
Dropping in on a novelist
Jeff and another guy who worked on the copy desk, George, took me
along when they visited Robbins at his storefront home on (if I
remember correctly) Front Street in La Conner. I think Robbins was
none-too-happy about us dropping in because he had a guest, a La
Conner local, who looked askance at us three disheveled hippies (we'd
been hunting mushrooms in the Skagit Valley woods). So the visit was brief.
On Robbins' roll-top desk was a stack of handwritten notes on yellow
paper, which he had apparently been typing up on an old manual
typewriter. To the left of the typewriter was a neat stack of typed pages.
"What's this?" I asked, reading the half-typed page that was still in
"A novel I'm working on," Robbins said. The large Mickey Mouse figure
on top of the desk was his muse, he explained.
I didn't realize I was reading "Another Roadside Attraction" until it
was published in 1971. I bought and read it in hardback because I
knew him. I didn't expect to be blown away, but I was.
Fast-forward to two summers ago when, while moving old boxes of
stuff, out fell a paperback copy of "Roadside," with my Zig Zag
rolling-paper bookmark still intact. I sat down and started reading it.
I was amazed at how much better it was now than then, because I
understood it so much better. It stood up spectacularly, hilariously
well, and captured an era perfectly.
Common themes, uncommon wit
Since then, I have read or reread all eight of Robbins' novels.
(Actually, I have 46 pages left to go of "Villa Incognito," which
I'll savor, because I don't want it to end.)
Some think "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues," his second novel, is his
best, and I wouldn't argue. But it's hard to top "Roadside," which
has as a principal figure the resurrected Jesus, who looks and talks
so much like a hippie he fits right in during the '60s so much so
that hardly anybody notices him.
Religion, or rather spirituality, figures in all of his novels, in
the form of gods, animism, belief systems, divine figures. Robbins
loves the ladies, and all his books have willing, nubile female
characters (Sissy Hankshaw of "Cowgirls" is probably the most
delicious). Factoids, little bits of knowledge one garners from
reading newspapers and periodicals mostly, pepper his plots.
Sometimes his plots turn on such fascinating facts the Asian circus
traditions in "Incognito," for instance.
In addition to "Roadside" and "Cowgirls," my favorites have turned
out to be "Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates," because of the
witty protagonist Switters, whose feet cannot touch the ground under
pain of death; "Skinny Legs and All," which tweaks the Arab-Israeli
conflict while invoking the dancing women of the Bible, and has
anthropomorphic characters, including a spoon, an empty can of beans
and St. Patrick's Cathedral; and "Jitterbug Perfume," through which I
learned a great deal about beets, the perfume industry and the god
Pan (who also appears in "Roadside").
A writer with wisdom
It's fun to read Robbins' books because Seattle and the Northwest
figure in them, and I recognize many of the places. And he loves
language and word play.
But what I ultimately take away from Robbins is wisdom. He imparts
wisdom by way of his characters, his plots, his humor and the real
historic figures he evokes.
In "Still Life With Woodpecker," Robbins uses a quote that I share
with friends, and reread when I need inspiration. For me, it also
sums up what Robbins is all about:
You don't need to leave your room.
Remain sitting at your table and listen.
Don't even listen, simply wait.
Don't even wait.
Be quite still and solitary.
The world will freely offer itself to you.
To be unmasked, it has no choice.
It will roll in ecstasy at your feet.
Robbins makes the world a wonderful place to be. He makes it roll in
ecstasy at your feet, like a pet dog. He makes you appreciate the good in life.
He makes me laugh, and he makes me think. That's what I love about Tom Robbins.
Patrick MacDonald: 206-464-2312 or email@example.com