Bank Robberies, Enlightenment, and More Highlights from Tom Robbins’ Memoir

Bank Robberies, Enlightenment, and More Highlights from Tom Robbins’ Memoir

One needn’t get past the title page of a Tom Robbins book to gain a sense of the author’s singularity. His nine works of fiction, and now nonfiction thingamajig (which I’ll get to in a moment), bear some of the most brow-furrowing names in the canon. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues; Jitterbug Perfume; Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates: What, you ask, could these documents possibly be about? A woman with giant thumbs, in the case of the first; in that of the second, divinity and beets; in the that of the third, a wheelchair-bound CIA agent on a spiritual trek across four continents. You get my drift, yes? This Robbins guy: He’s eccentric.

Robbins is, in fact, so eccentric that, until now (and, according to him, even now), he’s managed to resist the allure of that big-green-giant genre currently gobbling up the creative energies of every stripe of writer: the memoir. “I’ve even made an effort to avoid the autobiographical in my novels,” he writes in the preface to his latest, Tibetan Peach Pie, “wishing neither to shortchange imagination nor use up my life in literature.”

A perfectly respectable position to take, but one that leaves us with the question: What shall we callTibetan Peach Pie, this haphazardly ricocheting—but without exception entertaining—collection of “true” (to the extent that the memory bank of an octogenarian fiction writer will allow) stories from Robbins’ own life? As usual, the author resists dignifying such a simpletonian Q with a straightforward A. “If Tibetan Peach Pie doesn’t read like a normal memoir, that may be because I haven’t exactly led what most normal people would consider a normal life.”

Still, in recounting his long and varied journey, from his boyhood meddlings and adventures to his involvement in the countercultural movement in the 1960s, Robbins does drop the breadcrumbs of insight and truth that we readers, overfed on more loaf-like autobiographies, have come to expect. And while no distilled tip sheet can give a sufficient sense of the joyride that TPP offers, a fanboy must occasionally gush, and so: Here, a few delightful facts you may not have known about the inimitable Tom Robbins.

He’s a southern boy.

Given our country’s fascination with all things Southern ( Tom Sawyer and True Detective, however discrepant in medium and significance, both play into our crush on sub-Mason-Dixon culture), it’s surprising that Robbins’ twang-tinged origin isn’t more frequently commented upon. That may have to do, of course, with the author’s determination to scrub away his “cheap dog food” dialect.

Born in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, and raised in various towns and cities across Appalachia, Robbins developed at an early age an accent that, according to him, “would have made the cast ofThe Beverly Hillbillies sound like the Royal Academy performing King Lear.” But his efforts to eradicate his “far”-for-“fire” drawl (after his father’s work forced the family to move to slightly more urbane Urbanna, Virginia) proved only mildly successful. “What happened was that my elocution flattened out permanently into a kind of deflated Okie drawl,” Robbins writes. He retains to this day the audible ghost of an accent (which, in North-Carolinaish, you’d call a “haint”).

He once robbed a bank.

Granted, he was only seven, and he and his partner, a neighborhood boy named Johnny, were about as successful in their plan to empty the local bank of all its cash and jewels as Butch and Sundance were in their last stand against death and time in Bolivia. But, enter the building with cap pistol in hand Tom and Johnny did—and run screaming at the first sound of “gunshots” (really: harmless torpedo fireworks the bank had on hand for such occasions) they did, too. Not surprisingly, Robbins’ parents were displeased, and Robbins himself admits to experiencing a touch of a remorse. But when the almost-larcenist (who by this time had earned the nickname “Tommy Rotten”) went to bed that night, his mischief streak resurfaced. “With a secret smile,” he writes, “I couldn’t help thinking… We could have pulled it off.”

He had a (short-lived) career in the circus.

When Robbins was nine, a circus blew through Blowing Rock and gave to the author his first glimpse of love. Bobbi, as Robbins calls her, was a pink-tights-clad girl who, born to a ringmaster father and prestidigitator mother, had grown up amid tents, flames, and animal dung. She was, in Robbins’ acrobatic imagination, “a preadolescent living embodiment of Tarzan’s Jane.” He fell in love, too, with the circus itself.

“The attraction for me,” he writes, “wasn’t so much the fierce individualism and freedom from convention afforded by the transient life… but rather the sheer exuberant gilding-the-lily poetics of the baroque spectacles… the invitation to bask in the rainbowed prisms of a movable Oz.” Never one to submit to wistfulness or, worse, pragmatism, Robbins convinced his parents to let him follow the show (with Bobbi!) to their next stop, 50 miles away. Sadly, he only made it that far. As mothers are wont to do when their children run away with the circus, his worried. All too soon, his days of “free cotton candy, curious conversations with clowns, and all the monkey manure [he] could handle” came to an end.

He’s a descendant of Daniel Defoe.

In his seventies Robbins gave in to a curiosity about his heritage and paid a genealogist to map the various twigs and branches of his family tree. One of the more impressive (to readers at least) discoveries was his filial link with the eighteenth-century writer and Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe. The news spurred Robbins to revisit the author’s classic shipwreck novel, but he ultimately failed to find reason to luxuriate in his relation to the literary heavyweight. He writes: “I was dismayed to find that Defoe was an imperialist, a racist, a sexist, and somewhat of a literary hack—which is to say, in his entire book there is not one sentence so daring or so beautiful or so funny or so wise I’d give twenty-five dollars to have written it (a screwy way to judge talent, I agree, but there you have it).”

Natalie Wood helped him to attain spiritual enlightenment.

It’s not as salacious as it sounds. For one, both enlightener and enlightened were far too young (eight and 13, respectively) to engage in any activities north of PG. And, speaking of film, they were, in any case, separated by that occasionally illusory-seeming but ultimately all too extant divide: the screen. Robbins’ teaser trailer of nirvana came when he went to see the film Tomorrow is Forever (1946), which tells the story of a soldier who, after years of being presumed dead, returns to find that his wife has remarried.

Wood “played the adopted daughter of the resurrected man, trying to be brave as her young life is squeezed through one emotional ringer after another.” Despite knowing the film was a “Hollywood tear pump,” Robbins found himself entranced by Wood’s “rippled echo-circles of such genuine poignancy.” He writes: “My scruffy whippersnapper heart opened like a sardine tin… I sensed the world in me and me in the world, felt fundamentally connected, saw the many as all and the all as the one; one and all bobbing along forever and ever in an unending, indestructible river of tears and tickles, breath and meat.”

He once worked for Tom Wolfe.

The bon vivant and future New Journalism pioneer was Robbins’ editor at Ring-tum Phi, the sports newspaper of Washington & Lee, the prestigious (nickname: “Princeton of the South”) and, at that time, all-boys college in Virginia that they both attended in the 1950s. Separated as they were by hierarchies both editorial and collegiate, Robbins never actually interacted with Wolfe while at W&L. But, decades later, after they’d each been doused with sufficient literary success, they exchanged friendly words at Esquire’s 50th-anniversary gala at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York—an event to which Robbins, no surprise, wore a “ruffled pink shirt and… bow tie with colored sequins.” So, what did Tom W. say to Tom R.? “Whenever and wherever he spoke on college campuses,” Robbins relays to readers, “students would invariably ask if he knew Tom Robbins.”

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