Tom Robbins Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Tom Robbins 1936–

(Born Thomas Eugene Robbins) American novelist and short story writer.

Robbins writes wildly playful novels which express his view that "playfulness is a form of wisdom and not of frivolity." The tone of his novels is not a denial of the more sobering aspects of life but an advocacy of "joy in spite of everything." He communicates this message through the philosophies his characters present as well as through his elaborate writing style. Outrageous puns, nonsequiturs, oxymorons, and digressions on top of digressions characterize Robbins's narrative. His novels question not only literary conventions but also societal assumptions about the best way to assure human satisfaction. Robbins incorporates alternative ideas from such diverse sources as pantheism, Eastern mystical religions, and New Physics.

Robbins is often considered a literary descendant of such post-modern writers as Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, and Kurt Vonnegut. Like these authors, Robbins acknowledges the absurdity of modern life, rejects conformity in favor of individual expression, and uses elements of metafiction in his writing. He often speaks directly to the reader, commenting on the work in progress or appearing as a character in the novel. However, unlike his recent forebears—who often write black comedy and present a bleak prognosis for the modern world—Robbins's tone is optimistic and his humor usually lighthearted.

Another Roadside Attraction (1971) earned Robbins praise from most critics. However, the novel was not a popular success until the paperback edition was published in 1973, when it began to attract a cult following. Robbins's greater success in paperback is often attributed to the fact that his novels, which irreverently question and satirize those social conventions which fail to increase the level of joy in people's lives, are appreciated especially by the young and the unconventional. Robbins's second and third novels were brought out in paperback immediately and became bestsellers. Mitchell Ross dubbed Robbins "Prince of the Paperback Literati."

Another Roadside Attraction displays the characteristics typical of Robbins's fiction: an outrageous plot, unusual characters, and imaginative use of language. It is narrated by Marx Marvelous, an academic whom many critics identify as Robbins's alter-ego. Robbins's main concerns in the novel are to advocate the joyous acceptance of the mystery of the universe and to portray the romance between Marx and the heroine, along with Marx's journey towards self-awareness.

In Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1976) Robbins focuses on an attractive heroine, Sissy Hankshaw, a woman with nine-inch thumbs who is an obsessive hitchhiker. Sissy moves between New York City, where she is a model, and South Dakota, where a cosmetic health farm has been taken over by a group of feminist cowgirls. As the narrative traces Sissy's travels, such themes as the human relationship with the universe and the importance of individual freedom are explored. Although some critics find Robbins's digressions and wordplay to be self-indulgent, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues was on the whole very well received.

Still Life with Woodpecker: A Sort of a Love Story (1980) is the least critically acclaimed of Robbins's first three novels. In contrast to the complicated plots of his earlier works, the story of Still Life is simple and, according to some critics, slow-moving and fable-like. In this tale of a modern environmentalist princess and her "metaphysical outlaw" lover, Robbins maintains that individual romantic and personal fulfillment are more important than social activism; he rejects dogma, believing that "good can be as banal as evil." Despite Robbins's efforts to communicate his message, some critics did not find Still Life with Woodpecker deeply meaningful. For example, Donald Hettinga argued that the novel "never becomes more than a clever package of words." Many critics, however, appreciate Robbins's creative use of language, as well as his celebration of the human spirit and his perpetuation of upbeat values.

In the recent Jitterbug Perfume (1984), a typical varied cast of characters traverse time and space in search of both the ultimate perfume and the secret of immortality.

(See also CLC, Vol. 9; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980.)

William Cloonan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In recent years we have seen wild enthusiasm, much discussion, and some handwringing for the likes of Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Brautigan, and Thomas Pynchon. The latest discovery is Tom Robbins.

Several qualities distinguish the novels by these contemporary cult figures from those of authors such as [Henry] James. The most obvious characteristic is their enormous popularity, which entails equally large financial rewards….

A second characteristic of these recent novels is a fascination with travel, but the sort of travel that precludes round-trip fares and forty-five-day limits. Concerns of time and cost do not matter, because neither the destination nor the purpose is always very...

(The entire section is 1741 words.)

R. V. Cassill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Old fashions of escape literature never die; they come back with new drapes, dyes and hemlines, and the cotton candy of yesteryear is now laced with cocaine to dull the ache in teeth rotted by sugar. Fairy tales that charm the young invite their elders to scan them as symptomatic fantasies of flight from the anxieties of the age. So there's something for everyone in ["Still Life With Woodpecker"], Tom Robbins's medley of antique fairy tales, Aquarian shibboleths and didactic Yippie formulas for living the good life across the rainbow from the reality principle. The speed of his ricocheting metaphors may well hustle you past the patent falsity of the moral that crowns his tale of a princess and her princely savior…....

(The entire section is 317 words.)

Donald R. Hettinga

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In considering contemporary fiction, John Barth writes, "My own analogy would be with good jazz or classical music: one finds much on successive listenings or on close examination of the score that one didn't catch the first time through; but the first time through should be so ravishing—and not just to specialists—that one delights in the replay." Tom Robbins's Still Life With Woodpecker does not fare well with this kind of test. As witty as the novel is in places, it never becomes more than a clever package of words.

Wrapped up in the package is, the subtitle tells us, "A Sort of a Love Story." A pretty silly one, in fact: an exiled princess falls in love with a commoner who is also an...

(The entire section is 609 words.)

Sue M. Halpern

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Emma Goldman would like Tom Robbins. Having amassed a youthful following with his earlier novels, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and Another Roadside Attraction, Robbins uses his latest offering, Still Life With Woodpecker, to instruct his constituency on matters of free will and social responsibility. He is riotous yet resolute, not subtle, but shrewd.

Still Life With Woodpecker is a fable for and against the last quarter of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, Robbins relies on the elements used by classical fabulists. There is a beautiful princess, a loyal handmaiden, a barren attic, exile and court intrigue, many varieties of frogs and, most important, an anarchist...

(The entire section is 380 words.)

Jerome Klinkowitz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Can innovative fiction address the world and its problems, yet remain free of the limiting conventions of realism? Following the achievements of the avant-garde, can there still be fiction with feeling? A newly emergent group of writers in the late 1970s has defined itself in response to these problems. Best characterized as the authors of "bubble gum fiction" (as "bubble gum music" of the last decade was an answer to the abrasiveness and stridency of the period's heavier rock), William Kotzwinkle, Tom Robbins, Rob Swigart, and Gerald Rosen have tried to write a socially responsive fiction which does not sacrifice the aesthetic gains of the great sixties innovators. (p. 123)

The first underground...

(The entire section is 760 words.)

Mark Siegel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The novels of Tom Robbins, Another Roadside Attraction (1971), Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1976), and Still Life with Woodpecker (1980), are set mostly in Washington state and the Dakotas, yet at first glance seem to have little in common with the formula Western or with Western writing in general. However, a more than cursory reading of Robbins's novels shows that climactic showdowns and shootouts are present, conflicts between unambiguously good and bad guys are, at least temporarily, resolved, and heroes do ride off into the sunset. When the construction and themes of his work are examined, it becomes clear that Robbins has reworked in an unusual style many of the conflicts familiar to the...

(The entire section is 2259 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If Thomas Pynchon were a Muppet, he would write like Tom Robbins.

That may be, indeed, a large part of the problem in reading Robbins. He's so cute: his books are full of cute lines populated by unrelentingly cute people, even teeming with cute animals—frogs, chipmunks, and chihuahuas in Still Life With Woodpecker. No one ever gets hurt very badly …, and although the world is threatened by the same dark, soulless business cartels that threaten the worlds of Pynchon, Mailer, and our century, in Robbins it doesn't seem, finally, to matter. Love or something like it really does conquer all in his parables, with a mixture of stoned gaiety, positive thinking, and Sunday Supplement...

(The entire section is 953 words.)

Robert Nadeau

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Although the fiction of Tom Robbins may not yet appear on the syllabi of many surveys of contemporary literature, his novels seem to have something like the same following among college students as the fiction of Barth or Pynchon did before they became fully legitimated as makers of elitist art. It is interesting from our point of view, however, that concepts from physics, which are for the most part implicit as structuring principles in the art of the more established novelists, are treated in the fiction of this relative newcomer as concerns that must be reckoned with openly. Robbins boldly assumes his reader's familiarity with the fundamental precepts of the new physics and proceeds to explore their metaphysical...

(The entire section is 1656 words.)

Rudy Rucker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Jitterbug Perfume has a large and exotic cast of characters, all of whom are interested in immortality and/or perfume. There is Priscilla in Seattle, a "genius waitress" who spends her off hours trying to invent the ultimate perfume. In New Orleans, we have Madame Devalier and V'lu, sometime potion-merchants now in search for the same jasmine-based scent as Priscilla is. In Paris there are the LeFever brothers of LeFever Fragrances…. Back in Seattle, there is Wiggs Dannyboy, a Timothy Leary work-alike who's given up acid for immortality research. And most important of all, there are Alobar and Kudra, immortal lovers who trek from medieval Bohemia to present-day Paris by way of a Tibetan lamasery, the...

(The entire section is 671 words.)

Gary Blonston

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

When Tom Robbins published "Another Roadside Attraction" in 1971 and then topped it with "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" in 1976, it appeared a new madman-genius of fiction had been loosed from the American counterculture. But the counterculture grew up, and in 1981, when he put out the humdrum and commercial "Still Life with Woodpecker," he sold some books, but phrases like "sold-out" and "burned-out" kept coming to mind.

Well, not true. The old Tom Robbins is back, and with his newest novel, "Jitterbug Perfume," he proves he is fully as crazy as ever, as full of astonishing word play, unimaginable characters and swooshing flights of observation. "Jitterbug" is as funny and weird and wise and...

(The entire section is 353 words.)

John House

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Tom Robbins is Carlos Castaneda in motley, Leo Buscaglia in love beads. Like his earlier books, "Jitterbug Perfume" is not so much a novel as an inspirational fable, full of Hallmark sweetness, good examples and hope springing eternal. Its message is a simple one—"it is better to be small, colorful, sexy, careless, and peaceful, like the flowers, than large, conservative, repressed, fearful, and aggressive, like the thunder lizards." While the world has changed substantially since 1971, the year of Mr. Robbins's first novel, "Another Roadside Attraction," his odd corner of it has remained intact, caught in the amber of 1960's romanticism….

Mr. Robbins's style is unmistakable—oblique, florid,...

(The entire section is 550 words.)