Tom Robbins and the audacity of humor

Thanks to a neighbor’s donation to a Little Free Library box in a parking strip near our house, I’m reading Tom Robbins for the first time. I’ve known about him forever, just never picked up any of his books. I might not have picked up this one either—I’m suspicious of popularity in writers—except that my husband, who can’t pass a sidewalk library without a book or two leaping into his arms, brought this one home, started reading it, and persuaded me by his laughter to give it a look.

Tom Robbins. What a wild-word-wielding, outrageous-simile-spinning imagination. This is a writer who would take the accusation of overwriting—writing too elaborately—as something to cackle at. He takes overwriting over over-the-top. 

The book is Still Life with Woodpecker. When I got to page 228, I came to a sentence that stopped me. I reread it and reread it. Context: one of the main characters, Princess Leigh-Cheri Furstenberg-Barcalona (so spelled), finds herself in Algeria after a series of whimsically absurd turns of events. Here’s the sentence:

“It was as noon as noon could be when she stood at her window, staring across the shadowless city, low and blanched and jumbled as a boneyard, as a retirement picnic for used-up schoolroom chalk.”


This string of thirty-five words (or thirty-six depending on how you count “used-up”) could have come from no other author. It’s mere description—the stuff you skip over when you’re reading to find out what happens next—and yet the scene steals the scene. Stubs of chalk sitting around having a retirement picnic? What kind of image is that! Especially dropped on top of a boneyard that you’ve just thrown on top of a city. Tom, my man. You can’t do that. What did they teach you in writing school?

Apparently, evoking this kind of hey-you-can’t-do-that reaction from readers is exactly what Tom is up to. When it comes to words, Thomas Eugene Robbins—like the titular character, Bernard Mickey Wrangle, originally Baby Wrangle, aka T. Victrola Firecracker, aka the Woodpecker—prides himself on being an outlaw. Draw a line, he will cross it. You’ve been warned.

I find this oh-yes-I-can playfulness irresistible. For example, in the “as noon as noon can be” sentence, the odd combo of chalk bits and bones is wackily effective in representing a city that’s “low and blanched and jumbled.” What could be lower, more blanched, and more jumbled than a bunch of picnicking chalk butts and random bones lying around? Besides, this collection of used-up chalk and scattered bones conveys a sense of oldness so surely that the writer doesn’t even need to say old.

The magic of masterful metaphor.

Then there’s the musicality. As I read and reread that sentence, my hand beats the air, marking time. “Used-up schoolroom chalk.” Dum-da dum-da dum. Mmh.

Tom Robbins, Still Life with Woodpecker

Crack this book open anywhere, and you’ll find a comparison that knocks you back. Consider this one from page 32:

“Like the coyote, the killer whale, the gorilla, and the whooping crane, Hostess Twinkies mate for life.”

I don’t know, maybe you saw that coming.

Here’s one from page 18:

“Her blue eyes were as soft and moist as huevos rancheros.”

How romantic is this image of a couple of sunny-side-up eggs on a woman’s face, smothered in black beans and adobo sauce? This sentence reads like an entry in the annual Bulwer Lytton contest. Yes, this guy sitting at his Remington SL3 typewriter (which is practically a character in the book) is messing with us. We’re dealing with an overwriter’s overwriter. As you read this book, I dare you to brace yourself sufficiently for whatever’s coming next. For example, just when you think you’ve got a bead on the storyline, you may get zapped off course with a Grouchoesque nonsequitur. Take this one on page 67. Speaking to Leigh-Cheri of beach boys in Hawaii, Bernard says, “They’d be no threat to me. I have a black belt in haiku. And a black vest in the cleaners.” The vest, in case you wonder, is never mentioned again. To read Tom Robbins, you must channel your inner Zen master: let go of expectations, allow for anything, muster all your powers to enjoy the ride. The Force must be with you.

(You get a glimpse of what I’m talking about even in the book’s “About the Author” blurb: “Tom Robbins lives in the rain country north of Seattle, where he’s still trying to figure out what that British critic meant when he said, ‘Tom Robbins writes like Dolly Parton looks.'” No way did that oh-so-Robbinsesque analogy come from some critic, British or otherwise.)

Let’s jump to page 9, where I got one of my first hints that I’d be constantly shaking my head even as I’m smiling:

Like a pair of r’s trapped in a Spanish songbook, Tilli and Max lurked in their shoebox castle, waiting to be rolled.

Like a pair of r’s waiting to be rolled? What does that even mean? Go ahead, grab a copy of the book, turn to page 9, and read that sentence in context. I guarantee that you’ll still be scratching your head. More than anything, whatever sense you may make of it, that sentence is an invitation to revel in the ridiculous.

There’s more to Tom’s style than his what-did-he-just-sayness. He uses all his prodigious writerly tools, though, to the same ends: to help us laugh in the face of the preposterous. This is no small gift if you consider that to be alive on this planet is to be confronted daily with the preposterous. And Tom does consider this very thing. Like the most brilliant of clowns, he draws his humor from the hardest things about being human. All through the book, which was published in 1980, he reminds us of the issues facing the world “in the last quarter of the twentieth century.” That phrase opens the novel and serves as a refrain from chapter to chapter. Every flight of fancy stands out against that big backdrop, a backdrop that has gotten no smaller in the intervening years.

Don’t take life too seriously, this book seems to say. Here we all are, like so many r’s trapped in a Spanish songbook, lurking in our shoebox castle, waiting to be rolled. We might as well have the audacity to laugh.

Also published on Medium.

10 thoughts on “Tom Robbins and the audacity of humor

  1. Oh this’ll be fun, it’s been 40 years since I read it and I don’t remember a thing. Is this what aging is? Everything fresh and new?

  2. I am not sure how to process it. The best thing that came from this was to know that you reread things, I thought it was me. I was “poisoned” in the school of wanting to speed read but never seemed to have been very successful when it comes to comprehensive, so I reread and now I am trying to read with purpose and often it is slow with re-reading.


  3. Thank you for this fun blog, Marcia. It sounds like a funny book! I love your examples. ?

  4. Marcia, this is such a thoughtful and humorous reaction to the book. I’m going to read it again now. You have inspired me!

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