No one writes like Tom Robbins. And few, certainly, view the world from the same cheerfully oblique perspective. The late Kurt Vonnegut employed a comparably whimsical strain in much of his work, but that whimsy was offset by a deeply pessimistic vision of the human situation. Robbins, by contrast, is a fundamentally celebratory writer. He has produced a unique — and very funny — body of fiction. Now, in “Tibetan Peach Pie,” his first full-length work of nonfiction, Robbins draws back the veil from his own personal history and offers a lively, impressionistic account of a life well-lived.
“Tibetan Peach Pie” is a thematic companion to Robbins’s “Wild Ducks Flying Backward” (2005), an autobiographical collection of critiques, meditations, tributes and travel pieces. This new book, he warns us, can’t be considered a “normal memoir,” as its author hasn’t lived a “normal life.” True enough. No one, however, comes to a Tom Robbins book for a bracing dose of normality. We come for the iconoclastic humor, the bizarre imaginative leaps, the constantly startling prose. Robbins has always been an elegant, if eccentric, stylist. His sentences are rhythmic, seductive and filled with images from some celestial left field that only he can access. Mostly, we come to experience the peculiar character of Robbins’s mind — a mind marked by an endless search for the “crazy wisdom” that has animated his fiction and shaped his life.
“Tibetan Peach Pie” offers reminiscences and commentaries that chart the development of an unrestrained spirit. The early sections provide snapshots of the author’s Appalachian childhood, his early — and unsuccessful — marriage, four years spent in the “regimental winter” of military service, and extended apprenticeships in the fields of journalism and art criticism. These apprenticeships were preliminary steps in Robbins’s struggle to find both his writerly voice and his proper place in the world.
Emerging from “the stuffy sickroom of button-downed 1950s America,” Robbins found that place in the turbulence of the 1960s. Although Robbins never proselytizes on behalf of LSD and other psychedelic drugs, he makes it clear that, like Ken Kesey , he found these pharmaceutical encounters liberating and enlightening. The emergence of a radical counterculture that spoke directly to his gently anarchic sensibility also galvanized Robbins, pushing him further outside the realm of the drab and predictable.
Most significantly, in 1971 he found his literary voice through his first novel, “Another Roadside Attraction.” At once deeply reverent and wildly irreverent, the novel features a plot built on the sacrilegious premise that the mummified, unascended body of Christ lies hidden in the catacombs beneath the Vatican. By the time his third novel, “Still Life with Woodpecker,” was published in 1980, he was no longer a cult figure but a fixture on national bestseller lists. The resulting financial freedom allowed Robbins to continue his obsessive, ongoing pursuit of crazy wisdom and ecstatic liberation.
Much of “Tibetan Peach Pie” offers an episodic account of that pursuit. Its freewheeling structure allows Robbins to navigate, with the ease of a born raconteur, through the passions that have dominated his life. Among these are language (naturally) and women. Other passions well documented here include eating and traveling. The man who immortalized the properties of beets in “Jitterbug Perfume” celebrates food — both the exotic and commonplace varieties — with a gourmand’s enthusiasm. (Who else would write at such rhapsodic length about the virtues of the jelly doughnut?) And his love of travel has taken him from Havana to Tokyo to Timbuktu. His accounts of these journeys reveal a man who is open-hearted, adventurous and endlessly curious about the world around him.
Robbins’s peculiar charms are not for everyone. Still, Robbins has made a secure — and singular — place for himself in American popular culture. His novels, like this memoir, are thoroughly engaging, slightly skewed and touched by a kind of benign, highly communicable lunacy. And lunacy is the correct word. Who but Robbins would strip naked, paint his relevant body parts a bright acrylic red and pose as a baboon in order to raise money for a night of “alcoholic stimulation”?
“Tibetan Peach Pie” is a late, welcome gift from a philosopher-novelist who continues to believe in the transformative qualities of “novelty, beauty, mischief and mirth” — qualities apparent on every page of this lively, large-hearted book.
Sheehan is the author of “At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry into the Fiction of Peter Straub.”
TIBETAN PEACH PIE
A True Account of an Imaginative Life
By Tom Robbins; Ecco. 362 pp. $27.99