Even after re-reading a handful more of Tom Robbins’ books, there is not much I can say differently about why I love his writing and his stories so much that I didn’t already say in my first re-read review of Skinny Legs and All. That being said, this round of Cannonball Review Catching up includes my all-time favorite of all the Tom Robbins books, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, his work which I often perceive as the most popular amongst others (especially men), Still Life with Woodpecker, and one that I’m not entirely sure I’ve actually read before, Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas.
When I talk to people about Tom Robbins, they almost always bring up Still Life with Woodpecker. This used to annoy me because I always thought the protagonists and stories of Skinny Legs and All and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues were way better, and while I still love them more, my view of Still Life has improved with time. Still Life’s first protagonist is the disillusioned Princess Leigh-Cherie, in exile with her mother and father in America. Heart broken and embarrassed from recent personal events, she’s also striving to figure out how best to use her privilege and position as a Princess to change the world for good. At a CareFest symposium she meets the notorious outlaw, Bernard Mickey Wrangle, who is our second lead and is attempting to disrupt the CareFest but inadvertently disrupts a simultaneously occurring UFO convention. Leigh-Cherie arrests Bernard, they fall in love, argue over politics and the best ways to be in the world as well as how to make love stay, and the rest is as Tom Robbins as it gets: the moon, aliens, Argonians, princes, red heads, guardians assuming long abandoned thrones, pyramids, and communing over packs of Camel Cigarettes.
Re-reading Still Life helped me to see Princess Leigh-Cherie in a better light. I used to think of her as the simple idealist, rescued by Bernard’s expansive ideas about being an outlaw, non-conformance, and fighting against the status-quo in all directions. But really, and this is made clear in a moment of the book that I’d completely forgotten about, Leigh-Cherie is confident in her ideals and beliefs, though she allows herself to grow and learn, and it is really she who educates the far too rigid Bernard, encouraging him to think more abstractly about his own ideas and how they might grow and change. (I don’t know how to make that sentence make more sense, but I was pleasantly surprised by the discovery). More than anything, though, I love this story’s exploration of Love, the work (making love stay), and the moon.
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues will always be my favorite Tom Robbins, beating out even Skinny Legs and All. There’s also a movie starring Uma Thurman I’ve never watched because I don’t want to disrupt the image of all the characters I have in my head (but I’m really tempted because I love Uma Thurman). Cowgirls features Sissy Hankshaw, a young woman born with abnormally large thumbs. I’ve never been clear on exactly how large: big enough to prevent her from hooking her bra, big enough to affect her dexterity, big enough to say she fit the expression “all thumbs” all too well. But they also aren’t so big to take away from her model standard beauty which allowed her a short and mysterious career as a model for some menstrual hygiene products that play a larger role in the story than you’d expect. Whatever the case may be, Sissy is from a small town and she’s different, so her thumbs become a vehicle for her escape by introducing her to the world of hitchhiking (via her overhearing her father teasing her thumbs), which she takes on as her personal calling for the rest of her life. Spending much of her life mastering hitchhiking and movement, the book takes us through a period where she learns what it might mean to stand still and all the ways that does and doesn’t work out for her. We are also, of course, taken through various overlapping love stories, and introduced to indigenous peoples, rebellious cowgirls, The Countess, whooping cranes, a Japanese shaman, the clockworks, and more. This is my favorite and I’m not sure why except to say that Sissy’s reluctance towards the stationary, her general openness to change and a lack of control (although arguably her dedication to movement is as rigid as other people’s dedication to stability), is something I admire and am often in pursuit of in my own life. I’ve also always had romantic notions about hitchhiking and the days when doing so was, maybe, less likely to put you in serious trouble or danger. Sissy’s story taps into all of that plus the philosophical questions it posits concerning time and place. Plus, a story where one protagonist has three lovers (actually, four by the end) who all tap into totally different aspects of our personal needs is right up my alley, especially when one of those lovers is a Cowgirl named Bonanza Jellybean.
My confession for my re-read of Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas is that I’m not sure if I’ve read it before or not. I’m leaning towards not and I actually found it really difficult to get through. It felt familiar enough to confuse me, but I also didn’t love any of the characters like I usually do in Tom Robbins’ work. Our heroine in Frogs is Gwendolyn Mati, a wannabe tycoon constantly falling short of the stock market who is facing a major crash and the loss of everything she has worked for on the Thursday before Easter weekend. At the same time, her boyfriend, who she has mediocre feelings for emotionally but vested interest in financially, loses his pet monkey (or rather he escapes), Andre, a former jewel thief from France that he has supposedly rehabilitated. Gwen is also fated to meet Larry Diamond, inexplicably greasy and yet attractive to her, a former true tycoon of the stock market who disappeared to Timbuktu and has returned unexpectedly. Finally, she has to contend with her missing friend, a famous psychic Q-Jo, who was last known to be with the unsavory (in her mind) Larry Diamond. And did I mention the Japanese doctor Yamaguchi who barks at the moon and has found a cure for cancer? The story has all the elements of Tom Robbins I love: weird stories that all tether together in unexpected ways, a great reverence for waxing philosophical, connections to ideas/theories/conspiracies that actually exist in our world and are made to seem all the more plausible through his writing (in particular the Sirius Mysteries), but for whatever reason I wasn’t as into it. Instead of gobbling up the pontificating words of Larry Diamond, I found myself skimming over them more quickly, and I really, really didn’t love Gwen’s personality. I’d give this one another shot, but maybe in a different time of year (it feels like maybe a book I’d like more in the winter).
Reading this much Tom Robbins reminds me how much he might not be for everyone. His characters love to talk and many of the philosophical questions, mystical history, and strange encounters he considers through his stories are told through monologue after monologue. I love it and think Robbins is pretty masterful in writing interesting and compelling ideas through the voice of his protagonists and narrators, but, I can see how tiresome it might get for others (or even someone who loves his work but is reading them back to back).
More than anything, I’ll always love how much of champion I think Tom Robbins is for love. Weird love. Grand love. Sexy love. Silly love. Small love. All love. It’s celebrated and examined and broken down and built back up through his stories and I just am such a sucker for that.