Tom Robbins was once called “the most dangerous writer in the world.” He's the author of such underground classics as Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and Jitterbug Perfume, and was a long-term contributor to Esquire, Playboy, and GQ magazines. His mind-bending linguistic acrobatics, imaginative story-telling and iconoclastic attitudes have rendered his treatment of social, political, and religious themes paradoxically iconic. It doesn't get much better than that!
Tibetan Peach Pie is a personal memoir, but of course Robbins does things his own way. The chapters are only vaguely chronological. He approaches the memoir book form as a pastiche of reminiscences and recollections. It's hard to believe, but Robbins was born in 1932 and is in his early 80s now. This memoir deserves gratitude from readers because his life experiences are well worth telling. He offers specific insights about how and why he was able to do the kinds of writing that he did. Robbins did for articles and novels what the Beatniks did for poetry: he infused it with a strong sense of anarchic rhythm and presence. He tells his ardent fans what they want to know, served with mayonnaise-slathered panache.
The book bounces along with related incidents grouped in thematic chapters. The book begins with stories about his culturally homogenous, conservative white Baptist upbringing in North Carolina and Virginia. Robbins moved through a variety of jobs as a young man, including work in traveling circuses and carnivals. He also served in the military during the Korean War as a meteorological specialist. Traveling in Japan and Southeast Asia had a profound impact on his development.
His life as a writer began to bloom after he relocated to Washington State in the 1960s. He became the art and culture critic at a newspaper and picked up on the Beat legacy by exploring Zen Buddhism. His first trip on LSD pried his brain open like a tin can. He was ready and able to shift into a transcendental mind-set and his interest and affinity for Eastern religion and philosophy molded the unique point-of-view that makes his books so fascinating. His first book, Another Roadside Attraction, was published in 1971.
As a faithful Robbins reader might expect, the incidents related in this memoir range from comic to hilarious to wryly insightful. He pokes fun at himself, pokes fun at the situations, and never engages in a blame game. The text is liberally salted with linguistic flights and funny turns-of-phrase. Through his peregrinations, Robbins became acquainted with a surprising spectrum of other notable individuals who are mentioned in passing. These include some of the most exciting artists, musicians, personalities, and film-makers of the 1960s and 1970s. His work as an art and culture critic drew him into the strange fantasy world of the period.
Life is a series of stepping stones that lead to certain discoveries and destinies. Even as a child, Robbins wanted to be a writer. It's fascinating to follow the twists and turns of his personal path, and he is adept at showing how one thing led to another. Robbins approached life with a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants style. Fundamental choices and accidents of fate show that, all things considered, that he's had a fairly charmed life. A good angel (possibly Ella Fitzgerald) nudged him in the right direction at the right time. Preparedness met opportunity on numerous occasions.
This is a delightful, easy-to-read memoir by a top-notch American author. Robbins is in the same generation as Capote, Vidal, Pynchon, Hunter S. Thompson, and Tom Wolfe, yet his literary output is distinctive from theirs. He is more deeply entrenched in the bohemian, psychedelically-charged, mystically-inclined subculture that morphed from the Beat poets to the hippies to the civil rights freedom-fighters of the 1970s. Cultural misfits are the jewels in his literary crown. He writes not for sheeple but for those who question society’s precepts. This makes him less of a counter-culture figure than a sheep-dog of culture who nips at the sheeple, but all in good fun.
If a writer is going to share his personal history, it's always preferable that it not be boring or dry. Robbins is the juiciest American writer of the 20th century, and his view of the times in which he lived is colored by his unique point-of-view and his amazing skills as a story-teller. This memoir is well worth reading, and highly recommended to readers who admire his books and articles. It can also serve as a literary “special features” documentary to give insights to the periods of his life when his books were written. Two enormous Sissy Hankshaw-sized thumbs-up!
~review by Elizabeth Hazel
Author: Tom Robbins
Harper Collins, 2014
362 pages, $27.99 (hard)