TIME MARCHES ON. Tom Robbins is worried about getting old. "We, each of us, have a ticket to ride, and if the trip be interesting (if it's dull, we have only ourselves to blame), then we relish the landscape (how quickly it whizzes by!), interact with our fellow travelers, pay frequent visits to the washroom and concession stands, and hardly ever hold up the ticket to the light where we can read its plainly stated destination: The Abyss."
Jitterbug Perfume has a large and exotic cast of characters, all of whom are interested in immortality and/or perfume. There is Priscilla in Seattle, a "genius waitress" who spends her off hours trying to invent the ultimate perfume. In New Orleans, we have Madame Devalier and V'lu, sometime potion-merchants now in search for the same jasmine-based scent as Priscilla is. In Paris there are the LeFever brothers of LeFever Fragrances -- out of respect for the noble whale's ambergris, Marcel LeFever spends much of his time wearing a whale-mask. Back in Seattle, there is Wiggs Dannyboy, a Timothy Leary work-alike who's given up acid for immortality research. And most important of all, there are Alobar and Kudra, immortal lovers who trek from medieval Bohemia to present-day Paris by way of a Tibetan lamasery, the Bandaloop caves in India, Byzantine Constantinople, Pan's Greece, frontier America, and the afterworld.
The Alobar and Kudra story is the living heart of this book; somehow these two seem to have solved the problem that exercised Robbins in his last book, Still Life With Woodpecker: "Who knows how to make love stay?" Alobar and Kudra stay in love century after century -- how? By working together, being faithful to each other, and making love. This seems reasonable, although their secret of immortality does not: shallow breathing; hot baths; meager diet; and daily sex.
What do perfume and immortality have to do with each other? They are both related to memory. Marcel (!) LeFever makes the point that familiar smells seem to bring back memories more effectively than, say, photographs or tape- recordings, and then goes on to suggest that, "Fragrance is a conduit for our earliest memories, on the one hand; on the other, it may accompany us as we enter the next life . . . Fragrance may well be the signature of eternity." And indeed, when Kudra dematerializes and visits the afterworld, she learns that each soul brings along, as a kind of memory-aid, his or her favorite aroma: "a child's blanket, a backyard garden, a mother's kitchen, a horse, a factory, an artist's brush, an opium pipe." A nice feature of Jitterbug Perfume is that all the smells in it are pleasant.
Another nexus between perfume and immortality is sex: sexual attraction has a strong olfactory component, and orgasms give sensations of timelessness. The characters in this book make love a lot. Simple, commercial pornography has a surreal and transcendent quality that, in some ways, approaches good primitive art. But primitive art gentrifies easily into polystyrene masks and giant salad-spoons. By the time Wiggs gets Priscilla for the fourth or fifth time, I found myself thinking, "Who cares?" and, ''Why don't any of these people ever have babies?" Reproduction is, after all, the true immortality that sex leads to. Still, with regard to Robbins' fascination with sex, one might best echo Alobar's comment on Pan: "'I feel somehow that his lechery was secondary, although to what I cannot say.'"
The real joy in any Tom Robbins book is the mesmerizing flow of remarkable observations and fresh similes. The odor of jasmine is "some elusive self-sufficient thing that croons like an organic saxophone in the tropic night." Priscilla's one-room apartment is "called a studio apartment because art is supposed to be glamorous and landlords have a vested interest in making us believe that artists prefer to sleep in their workrooms." A chauvinistic Frenchman feels that English is "a language fit only for narrating animated cartoons and inciting crowds at sporting events"; but how can we believe him, when Robbins begins a scene in New Orleans with, "Louisiana in September was like an obscene phone call from nature. The air -- moist, sultry, secretive, and far from fresh -- felt as if it were being exhaled into one's face." One of the sex- scenes is lightened by the observation that, "Zippers are primal and modern at the very same time. On the one hand, your zipper is primitive and reptilian, on the other, mechanical and slick. A zipper is where the Industrial Revolution meets the Cobra Cult, don't you think?" The fertile, burgeoning quality of Robbins' prose is best captured by Wiggs Dannyboy's comparision between brains and flowers: "When we think, when we originate creative ideas, a literal blossoming is taking place. A brain entertaining insights is physically similar, say, to a jasmine bush blooming. It's smaller and faster, that's all."
Robbins' first two novels, Another Roadside Attraction and Only Cowgirls Get The Blues, were '60s novels -- filled with mushrooms and visions, radicals and police. Still Life With Woodpecker is about the '70s viewed as aftermath of the '60s. How does Jitterbug Perfume fit in? Has Tom Robbins moved into the '80s?
YES AND NO. Robbins is still very much his old Pan-worshipping self, yet his new book is lovingly plotted, with every conceivable loose end nailed down tight. Although the ideas are the same as ever, the form is contemporary, neo-realistic craftsmanship. Robbins toys with the 1980s' peculiar love/hate for the '60s through his invention of the character Wiggs Dannyboy: drug-guru, jailbird, immortality advocate. As if to push the Leary similarity into deliberate parody, Robbins often has Dannyboy talk in a corny Irish accent that set this reader's hair on end. The very worst is when Dannyboy relieves himself of a five-page lecture on clean living, an outgassing redolent with orthodox hippie advice such as, "Now there's nothin' like periodic fastin' for cleanin' out your pipes, and remember 'tis the accumulated death o' cells that . . ." Ugh!
I have a young writer-friend who sometimes talks about his resentment of the "Boomers" -- meaning the now-aging baby-boom generation. He thinks of Timothy Leary in the same way that we Boomers used to think of John Wayne -- as a boring gloryhog who's been around too long. To my young friend, hearing Boomers talking about the wonders of the '60s is every bit as awful as hearing old VFW guys gloating over WWII. For some young people, a Boomer who jogs for longevity is the moral equivalent of a politician who wants to be "president for life."
Looked at in a certain way, fitness and immortality are unwholesome concepts. An obsession with these concepts shows an inability to come to terms with the natural, inevitable fact that we all must age and die. And the fear of death leads to materialism and selfishness. Appropriately, Dannyboy exits Jitterbug Perfume in a totally selfish way.
But I've forgotten the beets! It would be hard to find any other book that even mentions beets, yet this intricate book, about perfume and immortality, has beets on nearly every page. Why? Go see for yourself; you'll have a good time.