This is going to be an unusual review, but then, we are dealing with an unusual writer. I first encountered the prose of Tom Robbins when I somehow got hold of and read his first novel Another Roadside Attraction. I can’t remember how I came across it and whether I read it here in the States before I set out on the road or somewhere in Europe or India on my early travels. What I do know for certain, though, is that I read it many decades ago but some of the characters and scenes are clear in my head even now. It deals with the hippy counterculture of the 1960s, but a major plot point is the theft of the mummified corpse of Jesus that had been hidden in the Vatican. I thought that it was a near-perfect little gem of a book. I liked it so much that I was concerned that anything else Robbins wrote would be anticlimactic; as a result, I never made any effort to read any of Robbins’s other novels, some of which were more popular and better received by critics than Another Roadside Attraction.
Be that as it may, fast-forward thirty or forty years. After thirty-five years living abroad I moved back to the States and eventually found myself once again in my hometown of Seattle, where I picked up Tibetan Peach Pie at a Friends of the Seattle Public Library book sale. Alas, it sat for years on my shelf before I pulled it down to read it. One reason I never got round to it was the introduction, which states that the book is not an autobiography or even a memoir, although it clearly is. My suspicions about what it could possibly be if it wasn’t one of those two things, as well as my reluctance to tarnish the Robbins shine from my remembrance of Another Roadside Attraction caused it to remain on the shelf – an unusual situation, at least for long, for a book in my possession.
Here we are, though, in the midst of the coronavirus lockdown, and the Seattle Public Library has been closed for weeks, and I am searching my bookcases for reading material. With some trepidation, therefore, I picked up and started reading Tibetan Peach Pie. It is, in fact, both an autobiography and a memoir, told in Robbins’s humorous and sometimes convoluted style.
In short, Robbins seems unable to tell the story of his life with a straight face. That’s well and good, but the book reads like the interminable act of a stand-up comedian; however, instead of selecting highlights from his life, he starts at the beginning and works his way through. The humor, which seems forced at times, gets to be too much, at least for me, especially when the actual events he is writing about aren’t funny. In contrast, Steve Martin, an extremely funny guy, wrote his memoir Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life very straightforwardly; that one was almost impossible to put down.
At this point, I have to make a confession. Robbins seems to bring out unusual behavior in me. First of all, Another Roadside Attraction was so good that I didn’t want to spoil it and read more of his work. And then as I was reading Tibetan Peach Pie, although I was interested in what was happening, I couldn’t handle the style so I skipped ahead one hundred fifty pages or so to get to the part where he writes and publishes Another Roadside Attraction. I know: horror of horrors. It’s almost unforgivable, but there it is: my confession.
After that, I read it through to the end, although even then it was touch and go. For one thing, it was hard for me not to be envious of how easily Robbins got his first publishing deal. An editor approached him and asked for a book. No endless rounds of submissions and no rejections. It was clear sailing to fame and fortune all the way. Several of the closing chapters are full of Robbins hobnobbing with celebrities and taking expensive adventure vacations to the far corners of the Earth. This reminded me of the book Travels by Michael Crichton, who began jaunting about the world after achieving uncommon success with his novels.
In closing, in my opinion parts of Tibetan Peach Pie are entertaining but, as I said, I didn’t read it all. This in no way detracts from the fact that Robbins is a great novelist, and Another Roadside Attraction remains a near-perfect gem.