Pacific Northwest novelist Tom Robbins, profoundly provoked and inspired by what he calls the "1960s renaissance,” is often hailed as a comic/spiritual chronicler of that tumultuous decade. But his eight novels and numerous writings spanning a career of more than 35 years place him in a broader perspective as a futurist, a sharp-eyed observer of American aesthetics, and fanciful cultural gadfly.
Born in the Sweet Sunny South
The grandchild of two Baptist preachers, Thomas Eugene Robbins was born in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, on July 22, 1932. (Sources have differed as to Robbins's birth year with many, including an earlier version of this essay, giving it as 1936. However, Robbins's 2014 memoir Tibetan Peach Pie confirmed that he was born in 1932, and that date has since been generally accepted.) His mother, Katherine Robinson Robbins, was a nurse who wrote religious stories for children and encouraged Tom to read and write in early childhood. His father, George Thomas Robbins, was a power company executive. Tom was the oldest of four children: A younger sister died shortly before he turned 7, and twin sisters were born the next year. The family moved to Virginia when Tom was 11, and he grew up in a suburb of Richmond.
"The family in which I was reared," he remembers,” was kind of a Southern Baptist version of The Simpsons -- except that my father never would have eaten pie off of the floor and I played the part of both Bart and Lisa. Which is to say, I was, on the one hand, a rambunctious little troublemaker, and on the other, a highly sensitive, creative, artistic type. That dichotomy of personality can sometimes confound me even today."
Young Tom went to public schools until, he says, "I started getting into trouble.” He was sent to Hargrave Military Academy, whose motto was "Making men, not money." He lettered in basketball and was known as the class clown (Hood).
"What my background lacked in sophistication, it made up for in natural beauty, colorful language, and ample incentive to overlay numbing Sunday school ennui with dreamy longings for a romantic elsewhere. It gave me an appetite" (Sims).
Following high school, Robbins studied journalism at Washington and Lee University, a private four-year liberal arts college in Lexington, Virginia. After a couple of years, he left to hitchhike around the country, ending up in New York aspiring to a career as a poet. Of this brief flirtation with poesy, he says, "I needed an excuse to live in Greenwich Village" (Hood).
Motivated by the threat of being drafted into the Army, Robbins enlisted in the Air Force in 1953. He spent a year in the Far East teaching meteorology to the South Korean Air Force. "I wasn't particularly interested in meteorology and the Koreans weren't particularly interested in learning it. We found other ways to amuse ourselves and make a little money. Robbins dabbled in the toiletries black market and studied Japanese culture and aesthetics on trips to Tokyo (Hood).
After his four-year stint in the service, he majored in art at the Richmond (Virginia) Professional Institute, a professional school of the arts and annex of Williamsburg's College of William and Mary. He also worked fulltime as a copy editor at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Though he says he had a good relationship with the paper and fellow journalists, that didn't stop him from tweaking the racism embedded in the southern culture of the time. “People gave me a hard time for my integrationist views, but when they called me 'nigger lover,' it was always jocular. What they didn't know was on my days off, I was a civil rights worker.”
When nearby King William County school districts were ordered to integrate, the school boards instead closed classrooms and white kids attended schools in church basements and private homes known as "segregation academies." "I'd go up there on ... my days off,” Robbins says, "and teach the black kids” (Hood).
One of Robbins' duties at the Times-Dispatch was to choose photos for New York pundit Earl Wilson's gossip column. At the time, the paper did not print photos of African Americans. After he innocently chose photos of such non-controversial blacks as Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole, he was sternly apprised of the policy. The stance against interracial marriage was one of the strongest racist taboos at the time, and Robbins stirred the pot by publishing a picture of singer Sammy Davis Jr. with his new white wife, Scandinavian actress Mai Britt. Robbins says he left Richmond "to get as far as possible from Virginia while still living in the continental United States” (Hood).
A Long Way from Richmond
He landed in Seattle in January 1962.
"I only knew two things about Seattle: one, it was a long way from racist, sexist, homophobic, hide-bound, purse-lipped, gun-toting, church-crazed, flag-saluting, bourbon-swilling, buzz-cut, save your Confederate money, boys! Richmond, Virginia; and two, there was reputed to be something not quite right about its weather" (Bumbershoot speech).
Accepted at the University of Washington's School of Far Eastern Studies and planning to go to the graduate school in the fall, Robbins took what he intended to be an interim job at The Seattle Times. Because of a colleague's sudden leave of absence, he immediately became Assistant Features Editor. "One of my most enjoyable tasks,” he says, "was editing and writing headlines for Dear Abby.” When the popular syndicated advice columnist came to the newspaper, she asked to meet the person writing the headlines on her column, because they were unlike any headlines anywhere else in the country. "She came in, shook my hand, kind of looked me over, see what kind of freak I was" (Hood).
Robbins' desk was near the Arts and Entertainment department, which at the time was headed by long time Seattle journalist Lou Guzzo. "Lou needed an art critic and an assistant and because of my proximity to his office, I watched as a parade of little old ladies applied for the job. Since I'd graduated from an art school, I thought I could do a better job, so I went in and dropped some of my columns from the school paper on [Guzzo's] desk. He read them and I became Assistant A & E editor."
In less than a month, Guzzo collapsed with a bleeding ulcer, and didn't return to work for nearly six weeks. "Talk about baptism under fire," Robbins says. "I was running the A & E Dept. by myself -- I didn't know what I was doing.”
Reviewing the Seattle Symphony (a job for which, he says, he had no qualifications), Robbins in one piece compared Rossini, whose music was on the program that night, with Hollywood actor Robert Mitchum. Milton Katims, Seattle symphony director at the time, was so amazed he invited Robbins to a cocktail party at his home (Hood).
The double life of journalist and student didn't work for Robbins. "I tried to work at the paper and go to grad school, but it only lasted one quarter -- it was too hard and I was enjoying my job." Robbins worked at the Times for two and a half years, covering all manner of arts and entertainment, from theater to rodeos.
On July 19, 1963, in a funky artist’s storefront studio in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood, he took 300 micrograms of pure Sandoz pharmaceutical lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). The strong hallucinogenic qualities of the drug gave Robbins a life-bending epiphany. Soon after that and other psychedelic excursions, he "called in well" to work, telling Times management, "I've been sick for a long time, but now I'm well, so I won't be coming in again.
The Big Apple
He went to New York in early 1964, he says, "to find other members of my tribe. I didn't know anyone else, who'd taken [LSD] and I began feeling as if I was a nation of one. There was nothing in the papers about [LSD culture] at that time -- it was completely underground." He thought New York was the logical place to go, but had he known better, he says, "I'd have gone to San Francisco” (Hood).
Robbins took a room in the East Village and "Because of my Protestant ethic, I had to give myself a reason for being there, so I assigned myself a book on Jackson Pollock. I got to interview many of the old abstract expressionists, Barnett Newman, Tony Smith, and Mark Rothko."
He found others of his tribe, meeting Timothy Leary with whom he'd later become friends. But he couldn't take New York for long. After a year, in the mid-summer of 1965, he was lying on a cot in his tenement room. "The place was stinking,” he says. “I was reading Kesey's Sometimes A Great Notion. I could envision the Northwest and raindrops dripping off the firs and the ferns, so in the middle of the night, I just got up and left."
It was the mid-1960's, the noisy anti-Vietnam War movement was getting underway, and the large Baby Boom generation was kicking loose the old order societal restrictions with a drug culture, new music, and a sexual freedom only dreamed of by their stodgy forbearers.
Robbins returned to Seattle where growing numbers of the long-haired counterculture tribe were gathering and gaining the attention of the mainstream (or "straight") culture which was increasingly mystified, and affronted.
Robbins' radio show, "Notes From the Underground" on the legendary alternative Seattle FM station, KRAB, played the music of the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, and The Grateful Dead -- bands not yet being played by mainstream AM stations. He wrote "off and on" for The Helix, the free counterculture paper, and founded the Shazam Society, dedicated to "the tender and loving overthrow of established culture and to committing public and private acts of beauty, love, and mystery." These were Happenings, public art events now known as performance art. A Happening held April 1, 1967, was billed as "First Official Exhibit of UFOs (Unidentified Funky Objects) Awesome Images Show Better-Living-Through Sausages Display, and Brain Damage Festival” (Crowley).
Supporting himself by working as a part-time copy editor for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Robbins lived over a machine shop in the industrial part of Ballard with a bathroom window view of the iconic giant neon Bardahl sign. "After 6 o'clock, it was deserted and very quiet. I tried to start Another Roadside Attraction, but I had too many distractions.” He was still very involved in the art world organizing shows and happenings. "I finally figured," he says, "if I was going to write this book, I had to get out of town” (Hood).
Another Roadside Attraction
So he and his girlfriend Terrie Lunden moved to South Bend, Washington, rented a storefront for $8 a month and for the next two years, he wrote Another Roadside Attraction while eating restaurant leftovers gleaned by Terrie at her waitress job (O’Connell).
Robbins married Terrie Lunden in 1969 and they moved to the artist colony/tugboat town of La Conner Washington, in 1970. Son Fleetwood Star Robbins was born in 1971. The pair separated in 1972 and divorced a few years later.
Roadside reached bookstores in 1971. It's the story of a clairvoyant, sensuous, free spirit named Amanda; her mournful flute-playing magician husband, Ziller and a cast of fantastical characters who open a funky roadside zoo in the Skagit Valley. The highway attraction features, among many other things, a flea-circus, a baboon, and the mummified corpse of Jesus Christ.
Critics praised this funny, non-linear, sexy, mischievous, magic-laden tale. Rolling Stone Magazine called it "the quintessential novel of the '60's." and compared Robbins to James Joyce. The Los Angeles Times called Robbins the new Mark Twain.
But it was a failure in hardcover, selling less than half its print run of 5,000. Scraping to survive, he wrote his next novel, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. Then the paperback edition of Roadside began to take off. Eventually it sold several hundred thousand copies in mass-market paperback, inspiring publishers to bring out Robbins' next two books simultaneously in hardcover and paper. He naively demanded that he be allowed to design the cover of his first novel. “It took them by surprise, he says. "No one had ever asked before.” After that precedent, cover design has been in all his book contracts -- a rare license granted to few authors by publishers.
Cowgirls came out in 1976, the quirky story of Sissy Hankshaw, a beautiful, bisexual model with huge thumbs who finds freedom by hitchhiking from Manhattan to the Dakota Badlands, meeting and cavorting with a fantastical cast of characters.
Although wildly popular with readers, and although Thomas Pynchon called it, "a piece of working magic,” critical accolades did not greet it as they had greeted Roadside. This began Robbins' long tradition of disdain by some mainline literary critics.
He says he hasn't read one of his reviews -- good or bad -- since 1977. "[My editor and agent tell me] I've received scores -- no hundreds -- of favorable reviews. And I've seen the blurbs. So I have no complaints. Of course, some of the big, establishment critics do everything they can to discredit me, but what else can you expect from men who wear bow ties to work every day?" (Reising).
Joy in Spite of Everything
"'Joy in spite of everything' " he says, "is yanking the bell rope despite physical affliction -- it has become my Quasi Motto. One of my books is a hallucinogen, an aphrodisiac, a mood elevator, an intellectual garage door opener, and a metaphysical trash compactor" (Hood).
"The underpinnings of my literary aesthetic are not anchored in Western tradition, and that's the only tradition they recognize and understand. They're hemmed in by the narrowness of their experience. There's nothing in their cultural background to prepare them to recognize, let alone embrace, the universe’s predilection for paradox and novelty. They have no concept of ego dissolution; romancing the Tao is not part of their repertoire; the flux and elasticity and transmutability of reality escape them, and nonspecific ecstasy is a suspect, if not alien, state to them. Even more problematic for them is, well, I suppose what you'd call the playfulness in my work" (Reising).
The so-called "glorification" of psychedelic drugs in his earlier works was the fodder of denunciations by critics and conservative commentators. He says, "My life doesn't revolve nor has it ever revolved, around psychedelics. They enhanced my life -- psychedelics can enhance the life of any intelligent, courageous person, and they might even represent our last great hope for planetary survival -- but they didn't replace my life or become its central focus. Second, it shouldn't be implied that the acid elves sell talent by the pound -- or the microgram. The psychedelic drug doesn't exist that can make a creative genius out of a hack or turn a neurotic weenie into a happy fully conscious human being. You have to bring something to the table. And be willing to risk your belief systems. Some people want to go to heaven without dying" (Reisings).
Though he hasn’t written about the 1960s since the 1970s, he bridles at the oft-perpetuated myth that he is essentially a 1960s writer. But he defends that decade especially in the face of the bashing of it so popular in recent years. “The sixties were special," he wrote in Jitterbug Perfume. “Not only did they differ from the twenties, the fifties, the seventies, etc., they were superior to them. Like the Arthurian years at Camelot, the sixties constituted a breakthrough, a time when a significant little chunk of humanity briefly realized its moral potential and flirted with its neurological destiny, a collective spiritual awakening that flared brilliantly until the barbaric and mediocre impulses of the species drew tight once more the curtains of darkness.”
Cowgirls was adapted for the screen in 1993 by Portland filmmaker Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, Goodwill Hunting, Finding Forrester). Starring Uma Thurman, it was not well received by critics and was a box office failure. "Misconceived and miscast" sniped the Washington Post. Robbins told the Los Angeles Times, "I liked it inasmuch as I was able to,” citing the, time he spent on the set as the reason for his inability to see the movie objectively.
His next book, Still Life with Woodpecker (1980) is about an outlaw and a princess in love in a world with dwindling natural resources. It was Robbins' first book to make it onto The New York Times bestseller list -- every one of his books has appeared on it since. Jitterbug Perfume (1984), is the story of two lovers in the pursuit of immortality that begins in the time of Christ in the forests of Bohemia and ends at nine o'clock tonight (Paris time).
Skinny Legs and All (1990), the most political of Robbins' novels, is set in New York and Israel, and takes a hard look at religious fanaticism and Middle Eastern politics. Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas (1994) is the story of Gwen Mati, a frustrated Filipino stockbroker who questions the security of the life she has led and the unruly, outrageous one that beckons. Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates (2000) recounts the adventures of an aging CIA agent named Switters and a cast that includes a homesick parrot and a convent of defrocked nuns.
In Villa Incognito, Robbins newest novel, released in April 2003, readers are introduced to Tanuki, a shape-shifting Pan character (a Robbins' idea of Japanese myth) with enormous testicles who loves food, sake, and farmers' daughters. The titular villa is the lavish home in the mountains of Laos for three Air Force pilots gone missing in the Vietnam War who decided they'd rather stay missing than return home. The story takes readers from Laos to Seattle neighborhoods and to Bangkok's red light district.
Home and Away From Home
Robbins has made many friends in Hollywood and has had small parts in three films. He made a cameo appearance as the toy maker in director Alan Rudolph's 1987 remake of the "divine" romantic fantasy, Made in Heaven, with Timothy Hutton, Kelly McGillis, Maureen Stapleton, and Ellen Barkin. In Rudolph's 1999 version of Kurt Vonnegut's satirical novel, Breakfast of Champions, starring Bruce Willis, Barbara Hershey, Albert Finney, Nick Nolte, Buck Henry, Robbins had a few lines as a bar patron. He was also in Rudolph’s Mrs. Parker and The Vicious Circle (1994), the biographical film about Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Round Table starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Matthew Broderick.
Between books, Robbins has traveled to such disparate outposts as Tanzania, Timbuktu, and taken a tour through Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala with mythologist Joseph Campbell.
In 1997, Tom Robbins was given Bumbershoot's Golden Umbrella Award for "lifetime achievement in the arts.” It was his first literary prize.
He had a long relationship but brief marriage to potter/sculptor Donna Davis in the early 1980s. He says, "I was a serial monogamist. I had this history of three-year relationships and two-year flings. I don't consider them failures; I may have pissed some people off, but as a matter of fact I am still friends with most of my former girlfriends. But getting to know a strange woman intimately is such a thrill that I've wanted to experience it over and over again. I love the idea of the mail-order bride, though I've never got that far. To bring a strange woman into your home and become totally intimate with her …” (Downey).
Robbins stayed single until 1987, when he met psychic and actress Alexa D'Avalon. They have been together and living in La Conner ever since, marrying in 1994.