It pains me more than you can imagine to write these next few words.
Listening to Tom Robbins’ latest offering, Wild Ducks Flying Backwards, as an audiobook, is an excruciating experience. No, not because it is read by the author, who, by his own admission, has a voice that sounds like it was wrung out of a mop. Robbins is actually not at all a bad reader for this collection of mostly non-fiction pieces, many of them travel essays, tributes, and even the odd review or two. Non-fiction sketches don’t really require much of a reader; no sustained mellifluosity, no delving into characters or acting is required.
It isn’t terrible because any of the writing is bad either. With the exception of a very young Robbins’ review of a Doors’ concert (an ode so nakedly fan-ish that when he read it, the article was prefaced and followed up with small almost embarrassed remarks most likely not included in the print version), most of the pieces stand alone as either typical Robbins or just a little below that. The short stories here are too short to really be of much note, and anyway, they aren’t particularly good or representative samples of his fiction.
And what a long pleasure a Tom Robbins novel is, like a good slow bout of lovemaking with every position, every conjunction, tried on for size, always tender, sometimes energetic. What a thrill is a short bit of Tom Robbins article, turning up in some unexpected place, like a sweet piercingly cold flute of champagne in the middle of a workday.
But what a wearying, exhausting, tiresome endurance test this collection is to read (or to listen to) straight through in long stretches. It’s rather like a long, long, loooooonnnnng dinner with a clever, sometimes witty, host who never expounds at length for any time on one subject. He may make you laugh or even think, but only in two minute bouts. If you really must own this work, do yourself a favor: Buy it in print, put it on the back of your toilet, read one item a day (or once every time you have a seat), and stretch the thing out over a month or so.
What’s nice about these writings, even better than the paper collection, is that Robbins (as in the Doors’ piece) presents this as though it were just a recorded reading out in public and not merely a literal verbalization of the text. Nearly every article has a little intro wherein he gives us just a touch of background. That’s kind of endearing throughout.
Yet this collection has no real sense of necessity or cohesion. There are Esquire portraits, reviews of concerts, the liner notes to a Leonard Cohen tribute album, a defense of the sixties, and the most surprising and shocking thing of all, commercial whoring. It seems strange that such an idiosyncratic American original like Robbins’ would stoop to advertisements, which is what his short article on drinking out of a shoe ends up being (Bergdorf Goodman being the patron in question).
The best stuff in the book appears at the very beginning and it’s Robbins’ travel writing. A curious observer of this anthropological curiosity homo homo sapiens, the author takes us out west to the Canyon of the Vaginas as well as to Tanzania and a Botswanan swamp. These are typical Robbins, wacky, wonky, funky, and deeper than he is given credit for by any number of high falutin’ critics. His recognition of the western canyon as one of that last few holy places left in America is an observation the Frommer’s crowd just won’t get.
There are times when he lapses into a kind of naive sentimentality about the African savanna as though it were Eden, the kind of rosy tinted recollection that would irk me no matter who did it and always begs the question, so why did you come back? But for the most part, Robbins lives one of my particular dreams, which is to go all over the world, print up my thoughts about the experience, then convince someone to pay me for it (and as a bonus pick up my expenses to boot).
When he turns to tributes Robbins pens a scorcher to Jennifer Jason Leigh, one of my favorite actresses, though the article is short, probably not more than three hundred words tops. It’s almost hard to believe Robbins managed to get paid for this one, which demonstrates the power of a celebrity status. That bit of reverence fits neatly with a little smooch of worship for Robbins’ obvious crush, Diane Keaton.
The other highlights include his Joseph Campbell appreciation, a scholar whose width of vision and breadth of knowledge serve as strong undergirdings for his ease of accessibility. Robbins often treads some of the same motifs and themes in his novels, and the two writers are well paired. He likewise gives Ray Kroc his due for his skill and ingenuity (if not completely for his culinary accomplishments), then comments at the end, paraphrased, well that was written twenty years ago before the dark revelations of SuperSize Me, another one of Robbins’ asides unlikely to have made it into print. His Leonard Cohen tribute album liner notes are much longer, but lack any actual quotes to back up his statements about how great Cohen’s writing is, a weakness his other critical judgments share.
Much of the rest of the book is almost instantly forgettable. A turn of phrase stands out, a jolting metaphor, a sly bit of erudition slipped in. Robbins’ poetry is rather awful, the kind of doggerel verse well meaning dilettantes throw out on occasions that seem momentous (or to draw our poor beclouded eyes to a hitherto unsung bit of minutiae). If I had to pick a sample of writing to save from this whole mish-mash it would be Robbins’ lovely little theme on kissing which is nearly as delicious as being about to kiss. It’s no surprise that one ended up in Playboy.
Ultimately, Robbins is one of those curious writers whose novels are not too divorced from his personality and that shows in these various writings. Stephen King may not spend his afternoons killing small children (I will pretend to believe that), but Robbins spends his days thinking in just the same fashion that his novels unfold, quirkily, offbeat, amusingly. There are strong pieces herein and others which will do their author no credit and would have just as well remained hidden in the back pages of the magazines where they first appeared.
I’ll just quietly await his next novel.