It’s Phil Houha’s fault. One high school afternoon in 1975 I’d gone to his house for a jam session, and while we were relaxing post-jam we talked about books. He asked me if I’d ever heard of this guy Tom Robbins, that he was writing some pretty trippy stuff I might like. Being still somewhat naive, I had no idea who Phil was talking about, but the book’s cover was certainly interesting, and the sulfurous scent of blasphemy wafted across the room when I flipped through the pages. I took it home with me that day, read it in a night, and spent the next couple of weeks reassembling my blown mind.
Robbins’ sprawling tale of a Washington hot dog stand, a mystical earth mother, and the Second Coming of Christ is dizzying, especially when you’re a white suburban 15 year old kid who reads too much in the first place. The novel is rife with drug references, philosophical debate, explicit sex, and mythic characters. This is humanity the way it should be, where people stand for something, have beliefs and are willing to die for them. Even theirÂ names are colorful and exotic: Marx Marvelous, Plucky Purcell, Baby Thor, John Paul Zillerâ€”sobriquets to conjure with, to be sure.
On first reading the adventurous aspects of the narrative hooked me with their sheer audacity. But on reflection, the plot is as thin as butterfly wings. The real story is in the swooping aerial acrobatics of Robbins’ prose, with its frequent digressions into modern parables, dirty jokes, social satire, and generally chaotic disregard for convention. The author’s voice shifts from time to time, at first seeming awkward and clumsy, but then with narrative purpose, eventually forming a kind of self-conscious epistle to a new world. The book has a punch line, too, oh indeed it does, a hell of a punch line. But mainly, the words take delight in themselves, in their freedom from all restraint.
Another Roadside Attraction changed the way I looked at writing. Here is a book, serious in intent, but filled with playfully overwrought metaphors, its syntax stretched beyond recognition. The characters aren’t realistic at all, not deep or fleshed out, but vehicles for mythic ideas and cosmic tales. And it’s obvious that the author had a hell of a lot of fun writing it, too, a contagious joy. A novel with a serious theme, handled in an irreverent, goofy, slapstick fashion was something new to me, and opened up a new way of looking at the craft of writing.
But it affected me in other ways, as well. The openness with which sexuality was expressed struck a chord with me. Amandaâ€”the earth goddessâ€”made a distinction between the physicality of sex and the emotional attachment of love, something I’d felt in my own heart, but had never been able to express. Spiritually it gave me more confidence to question matters of faith, and to seek my own guidance rather than any established authority. But the book brought sadness as well, because I wanted so terribly much to live in that book, to be larger than mundane life, to be a character and live a meaningful (and colorful) life; it felt right, as though I wasn’t meant to be ordinary flesh and blood. I threw myself into intellectual and creative pursuits with a renewed fervor, knowing that I would only find that sense of belonging in my own imagination.
But that’s another story, for another time.
[Incidentally, I recently got in touch with Phil, and he says it isn't his fault, because he didn't read Robbins until college. So who could it have been?]