BY NICO VREELAND
[This is the first post in our new series, “I Loved This Book When…” Each Monday for the next few months, one of our contributors will match a great book with a time in their lives; keep up with this series, or any of our others, through our Special Features page.]
I loved Still Life with Woodpecker when I was a freshman in college. Partially, you have to assume, I loved it because of Tom Robbins’s unabashedly gleeful adoration of drugs, sex, smoking, drinking, and everything else I’d been told was a sin.
I smoked cigarettes back then. Camels. (If you can’t guess from the cover, this book has a lot to say about Camels.) At eighteen, I’d already gotten sick of people telling me smoking was bad for me, because I knew that. And after all, it wasn’t only bad for me and they seemed to be missing something.
Enter Tom Robbins. Here’s how he describes smoking:
Three of the four elements are shared by all creatures, but fire was a gift to humans alone. Smoking cigarettes is as intimate as we can become with fire without immediate excruciation. Every smoker is an embodiment of Prometheus, stealing fire from the gods and bringing it on back home. We smoke to capture the power of the sun, to pacify Hell, to identify with the primordial spark, to feed on the marrow of the volcano. It’s not the tobacco we’re after but the fire. When we smoke, we are performing a version of the fire dance, a ritual as ancient as lightning.
I photocopied that passage and taped it to my dorm-room door.
I had a whole library of Tom Robbins quotes on my door that year. And it wasn’t just the fact that he loves vices.
It was, for another thing, the way he would populate his novel with everyday things, all of which became fascinating in his hands. For example, after our heroine reads the back of the Cheerios box, explaining what to do in case of “dissatisfaction” with the Cheerios’ “performance,” we get this passage:
…they leave the reader puzzling over exactly what might be meant by the “performance” of the Cheerios.
Could the Cheerios be in bad voice? Might they not handle well on curves? Do they ejaculate too quickly? Has age affected their timing or are they merely in a mid-season slump? Afflicted with nervous exhaustion or broken hearts, are the Cheerios smiling bravely, insisting that the show must go on?
… do Cheerios measure up to Wheaties with beer, would they mix well with batshit in times of strife, would Ed Sullivan have signed them, would Knute Rockne have recruited them, how well do these little motherfuckers perform?
It’s this kind of thing that makes Robbins’s world so recognizable and yet so entirely foreign. It’s his world, in a way that’s intensely personal, and yet still approachable and reachable yourself.
In this way, Robbins taught me that you can live however you want to, and that a lack of precedent does not imply a lack of possibility. I don’t just mean his novels taught me this, I mean himself, too, as he inserts himself into his books, especially this one, more than most authors. Still Life, for example, opens with a bit of a metafictional battle cry:
If this typewriter can’t do it, then fuck it, it can’t be done.
This is this the all-new Remington SL3 … I sense that the novel of my dreams is in the Remington SL3—although it writes much faster than I can spell.
Throughout the novel, his battle with the Remington (and with whatever ghosts or demons he wrestles as he writes) is waged in interludes and interstices, and finally ends when the typewriter breaks and the last few pages are written out by hand.
The author Robbins inserts isn’t a character, I don’t think, the way most metafictional narrators are—that’s just him talking to you. There’s a brand of real originality running through his writing, and a sense that you’re reading a person’s thoughts moreso than any particular story he’s telling you.
That’s not to say that he doesn’t bring a great story. A Tom Robbins book, you can be assured, will not be a stodgy suburban novel about an accountant who’s unhappy with his life. This one, for instance, is about a princess and a bomber, the power of the moon, Cheerios and Camels, dynamite and UFOs. It’s been described as a love story that takes place in a pack of cigarettes (the label of which contains a secret message from the aliens).
Through all that, Robbins makes proclamations and dispenses wisdom from his own lessons learned. He loves almost everything, and he’s shy about almost nothing. He’s fearless, especially in his championing of individuality and his acceptance of anything that creates love and happiness.
His mind, in short, is a great one for a college freshman to experience. The souffle has to overrise before it settles into the dish. Eventually, I learned that being an adult wasn’t a license to do whatever you please, it was summoning the willpower to do or not do what you know to be right.
I still smoke Camels, though.