Like Deadheads chasing a Jerry Garcia riff, fans of Tom Robbins have a taste for the freewheeling, the rare, the exotic, the music between the notes: the Zen of playing chess with a Bedouin amid wafts of coffee on an Istanbul sidewalk while ripped on ketamine. The faithful expect the unexpected and are seldom disappointed. In uncontrolled doses, however, this itself can be a disappointment.
In Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates, Robbins creates another of his trademark traveling circuses — one slightly more believable, more worldly, and less warped than many he’s left spinning in his past — roughly bounded by Seattle, Lima, the Syrian desert, and the Vatican, where indigenous culture is celebrated, nuns screw like bunnies, and CIA agents who know the word for “vagina” in 71 different languages traverse deserts and jungles by wheelchair on ill-defined missions of mercy in between sessions partaking of meditation and Vietnamese ganja.
Robbins once again proves himself adept at hunting the dragon, riding the quark, presenting life as a lovely unity of opposites, a never-ending oxymoron. And the life the author is primarily concerned with is the inner, spiritual one; why else draw a Texas-born fighter pilot as a hooker-loving muncher of psychedelics?
The quest to reconcile the mundane with the millennial is obvious in Robbins’ playful, scintillating similes. Our main character’s dilated pupils look “like the burners on a dollhouse stove”; the jungle river he travels in Peru is “sleepy and sullen as pupils in ninth-grade algebra”; clouds above Seattle are “parked like limousines at a mobster’s funeral.” Robbins delivers these tropes with such frequency they hit your ears with a wit that’s by turns genius and trenchant, then hammering, and soon homicidal, until you finally beg him to stop (“The land spread out before him like a pizza.”).
Along the way, through discussions between character pairs (think Marx chatting with Nietzsche over whiskeys at an El Paso square dance), you are handed enough deep thematic material to want to flee the material world yourself. What about those ridiculous modern-day taboos against pedophilia? Is the future of humanity rooted in the nomadism of its past? Can you lie to God? To the Devil? What about the attraction of virginity and innocence? The subconscious aversion to personal hygiene, or “maintenance”?
If you don’t have questions of the sort even dimly lighting your inner marquee, drop this book and flee. Chances are you wouldn’t have picked up a book by the master of the matter-of-factly metaphysical, though, if you didn’t. This is an author with the slap-happy folk wisdom of Richard Brautigan, the spiralling syntax of Thomas Pynchon (though much subdued in comparison), and the madcap, spacy serialism of Douglas Adams, with a little Richard Bach mysticism thrown in.
At its most basic, Invalids is a picaresque tale in which Switters (first name never given–think James Bond meets Hunter S. Thompson and Carlos Castaneda), a CIA agent with pedophilic predilections and a penchant for psychedelics, embarks on a world tour on behalf of his ailing but intellectually sharp grandmother, who wants her exotic parrot repatriated to its Amazon homeland before her supposedly imminent demise.
In his travels, Switters is pointed in various directions by various, more self-assured supporting characters: the aforementioned grandmother; a computer hacker named Maestra; his stepsister, Suzy, for whom he holds a special place in his lustful heart; a CIA flyboy buddy and prodigious simile-slinger, Bobby Case; a Philadelphia-native nun who now lives in an oasis convent in Syria (named Domino Thiry, for the anti-communist political view espoused by former CIA chief John Foster Dulles) and her aunt (named Masked Beauty, head of the convent and host to a double-decker wart on the nose resembling “a crumb of rare ground beef that might have spilled out of a taco” ); and, finally, a homosexual Peruvian Indian boy named Juan Carlos who guides Switters down the Ucayali River in a boat called the Little Blessed Virgin of the Starry Waters. All advance Switters on his wobbly way toward self-awareness (and maybe a bedside date with the teenage Suzy).
These characters, if a wee bit cartoonish, are “vivid” (to quote one of Switters’ most favored, and feared, adjectives).
Armed with a Beretta, several linen suits, and a satellite-linked Web browser, Switters makes his way into the Peruvian jungle on behalf of Maestra. His reward, should he complete and videotape the mission: a rare Matisse painting and deed to her quiet cabin in Snoqualmie Pass.
But bad juju ensues. Sidetracked by a demure British ethnobotanist in a Bocachiquos hotel bar (in a scene that yields some funny trans-Atlantic repartee and showcases Robbins’ ability to render authentic voice, as if the Texan, the hard-nosed grandma, the Peruvian Indian, and the Lolitaesque nymphet — “I think I can, you know, get a ride home” — weren’t proof enough), he is lured to an audience with a pyramid-headed Kandakandero tribal chief (named Today Is Tomorrow) who is convinced the parrot (whose only speech is “Peeples of the verld, relax!”) is a reincarnated deity.
After the meeting, Switters wakes up, paralyzed, to discover that he and T.I.T. have ingested the parrot in a stew after being introduced via mind-altered state to “shiny copper-colored bulbs. Orbiting the earth. Called themselves masters, overlords.”
This accidental epiphany (of what, the reader can’t really be sure) touches off Switters’ sacking from the Company, his eviction from Maestra’s house, and the loss of her promised bequests to him.
There’s more, of course, by way of Switters’ somnabulations through hemispheric zones of war, religion, peace, destruction, and so on. And it’s easy enough to ask some basic credibility questions, like: How exactly does one launder suits in Bocachiquos, maneuver a wheelchair through the Syrian abyss, or be lured into a paralyzing situation with a pyramid-headed quasi-deity? But the conceit of Switters’ being a CIA agent spares you all those nagging questions on your way to discovering what the author really cares about: serving up spiritual bromides.
On self-esteem: “Self-esteem is for sissies,” yelps Maestra at one point. “Accept that you’re a pimple and try to keep a sense of humor about it. That way lies grace — and maybe even glory.”
On pedophilia: “Consensual, non-abusive, good-hearted fucking is not in and of itself defiling,” says Bobby Case. “Not even to the very young.”
On nomadism: “Isn’t fixity the hallmark of the living dead?” asks the Swittersian narrator, in wondering about his wandering.
And on knowledge in general, finally: “The honey that’s dipped from that busy hive can be sweet and nourishing, or it can be hallucinogenic,” says Switters. “All too frequently the latter can be confused with the former. Dip with caution. Reader beware.”
Indeed. Given that the author has elsewhere created talking Camel packages (Still Life With Woodpecker), and ambulating sticks and talking cans of beans imbued with the ability to unite warring Israeli and Palestinian deli owners in New York (Skinny Legs and All), and given the jacket-flap tribute by postmodernist extraordinaire Pynchon, you’d think Robbins could weave a tale with a bit more structural complexity. Whereas Pynchon has his sentences spiral into themselves and then pop out of holes on the other side of understanding, Robbins (witty turns of phrase notwithstanding) settles for a structure so linear as to be traditional, save for the occasional intrachapter flashback and the travelogue-ish prologue, in which he visits Lima, Bocachiquos, and the Vatican in three bits of geographic foreshadowing.
That said, semicartoon characters and simplicity aside, it would be hard to find a writer as simultaneously clowning and serious, as intent on enlightening as on entertaining, one who takes his readers so credibly on journeys into arcane places, rendering factual material like a tour guide, before adjusting the signposts and heading (he hopes) into another, harder-to-access mystical dimension.
The key, as you read in Invalids, is language. Demonstrating a fascination with Finnegans Wake throughout the book, Switters realizes that that book’s importance (and, we’re to believe, the importance of Invalids) is equal to “the importance of language to support and enrich the things we see.”
Great language does enrich, and Robbins’ book is a fairly rich reward. But as Hermann Hesse said (as quoted by Switters): “The magic theater is not for everyone.”
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