Review of Wild Ducks Flying Backward: The Short Writings Of Tom Robbins

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/20/06


  Tom Robbins, a self-proclaimed Zen Hedonist, is one of those writers whose name is now vaguely known- although it has slipped considerably in recognition and reputation from his 1970s heyday, but whose works are doomed to end up in antique shops in a century as people hold up his moldering books and wonder why and how his banal and flat out bad writing ever got into print in the first place. In short, they will either loathe us as barbarians, laugh at us as fools, or pity us as cretins for rewarding such bad writing with publication.

  To say that Robbins is a fifth rate Hunter S. Thompson is to insult even that vastly overrated cultural scribe. Known mainly for some supposedly humorous novels such as Even Cowgirls Get The Blues, Still Life With Woodpecker, Just Another Roadside Attraction, and Skinny Legs And All, this compendium- somehow aptly if enigmatically titled Wild Ducks Flying Backward: The Short Writings Of Tom Robbins, is about forty years worth of sheer irredeemable banality on display. This book is the sort of atrocious book that a name writer puts out when he has run out of new ideas and simply wants to milk his name for what little marketable worth it has left.

  The book is divided into five parts. The first is Travel Articles, in which the now seventy year old writer shows how ‘deep’ his humor runs with a piece titled Canyon Of The Vaginas. That this piece appeared in Esquire in 1988 says as much of the decline of standards at the major magazines as it does for Robbins’ literary limitations. In it, Robbins observes that a remote canyon in Nevada resembles a huge female vulva. Don’t they all? Has he got reportorial skills or what?  In The Day the Earth Spit Wart Hogs, Robbins tries to do his best Papa Hemingway imitation at a big game park in Tanzania. Naturally, nothing remotely Hemingwayvian occurs- in the encounter nor in the prose. Here is how the piece starts:


  The first time I was bitten by a tsetse fly (Ouch! Son of a bitch! Those suckers hurt!), I was convinced that in days, if not hours, I would be nodding out, snoring on the job, dreaming at the switch, yawning like a heavy-metal rocker stranded in Salt Lake City, just another droopy victim of the dreaded and sorrowful ‘sleeping sickness.’


  One might be able to marvel at how such a brief bit of precious self-consciousness could admix so inaptly with raging clichés and bad metaphors- go ahead and count’em, if only there was an ounce of wit or originality there. There’s not, and the piece only gets worse. In short, his natural observations make Edward Abbey look like Ralph Waldo Emerson. The next section is Tributes, which features paeans to The Doors, McDonald’s fast food restaurant founder Ray Kroc, songwriter Leonard Cohen, and writer Thomas Pynchon, among others. In regards to The Doors, Robbins shows that if he has ever had an original thought in his life he has admirably learnt to keep it separate from his lowest common denominator writing. In describing lead singer Jim Morrison he writes:


  An electrifying combination of an angel in grace and a dog in heat, he becomes intoxicated by the danger of his poetry, and, swept by impious laughter, he humps the microphone, beats it, sucks it off.


  Yes, you have read nearly these exact same words about Mr. Mojo Risin’ in countless other articles and books, but why would Robbins let that stop him from displaying his indebtedness to superior peers. That he is not particularly strong on details, nor is he particularly adept at writing at an adult level- this whole piece, as example, reads like the diary entry of a teenager rather than a then thirty one year old reporter. Even worse, though, is his bootlicking appraisal of the now thankfully dead intellectual charlatan Joseph Campbell, in a review of his late 1980s PBS series, The Power Of Myth, with sycophant extraordinaire Bill Moyers. The piece is so chock with idiocy that to focus on either the lack of Robbins’ wordly skill or the breadth of his intellectual vapidity would be to unfairly denigrate one instance of asininity for the other. A critic should not play favorites. Perhaps the worst piece is his reprinted liner notes for a tribute album to Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, which ends with this embarrassing summation of a real artist’s career:


  What matters here is that after thirty years, L. Cohen is holding court in the lobby of the whirlwind, and that giants have gathered to pay him homage. To him- and to us- they bring the offerings they have hammered from his iron, his lead, his kryptonite, his sexual nitrogen, his gold.


  Go ahead, please get that last drop of vomit from your throat. However, perhaps the best example that shows off Robbins’ fundamental lack of understanding art, and why things work or do not comes from this critique of Thomas Pynchon:


  For example, In Mason & Dixon he has the Reverend Cherrycoke (a splendid appellation!) wipe his bum with a ‘fistful of clover.’ A lesser writer might have settled for ‘grass’ or ‘leaves’ or ‘straw,’ none of which could have lit up the scene the way that clover does. It’s small choices such as that one, choices to which, except subliminally, the general reader is oblivious, that tote the freight of genius.


  Which is more appalling- his thinking Cherrycoke is a good name, his parenthetical- replete with exclamation point, or his belief that the word choice of ‘clover’, in this context, marks Pynchon as a genius? Not that it matters, for it’s like asking which roll of fat on Roseanne Barr is her most repulsive.

  The worst section is Stories, Poems, & Lyrics. To say that the ‘poetry’ of Mr. Robbins is execrable is to waste a valuable word on it. Why do non-poets all think they can write poems? Yes, we know, they think their names can sell anything, but Robbins makes Leonard Nimoy’s infamous Blue Mountain books of ‘poetry’ look like a competent poet by comparison. His doggerel shall not even be quoted. Musings & Critiques is Robbins attempting to be ‘deep’, while the final section, Responses, is just a series of a paragraph or two long pieces where Robbins opines, thus showing off both his lack of intellectual profundity and originality, as he answers such dillies of queries like, Why Do You Live Where You Live?, and What Is The Meaning Of Life? Robbins, as a humorist, writes like a none too talented fourteen year old trying to imitate the best lines from the first Monty Python skit he’s ever seen on DVD. When asked to write a piece for the Center For Steinbeck Studies, San Jose State University, 2002, in answer to the query, How Would You Evaluate John Steinbeck?, Robbins starts off his reply with this bon mot:


  Maybe what I admire most about John Steinbeck is that he never mortgaged his forty-acre heart for a suite in an ivory tower.


  Yes, this was his apparently serious attempt at discourse. To not say that wordplay is not a forte of Robbins’ would be to shirk one’s duties as a critic.

  Luckily, this critic found this book lying about the office of his mother’s doctor, about to be tossed, so paid not a red cent for it- it retails for $25.00 (Shame on Bantam Books!). Perhaps actor and filmmaker Tim Robbins really wrote this atrocious book, and the man who has had so many books published simply is the victim of a typo. How else to explain the twisted Kantian logic of the ridiculously bad piece titled What Is Art And If We Know What Art Is, What Is Politics? Of course, the whole presumption is that ‘all art is political,’ and Robbins opens up his piece with the Kantian stance that, ‘The most useful thing about art is its uselessness.’ One might hope he’d ended the piece with that single sentence, even if it is wrong, for art does have a purpose, and it is about the best written sentence in the book. Yet, so clueless as to even his stumbling upon a semi-truth is Robbins that he ends the piece by unwittingly giving art’s real purpose, even as he tries to negate it:


  Art revitalizes precisely because it has no purpose. Except to engage our senses. The emancipating jounce of inspired uselessness.


  Of course, if it is useless, how can it revitalize? This is a non-sequitur. One would be expecting much too much from such a writer and thinker at the Tom Robbins level to expect much more. Perhaps Robbins has written a few paragraphs of solid prose in his career, but they are not on display in this book. Let’s hope Tim Robbins’s Collected Prose betters his doppelganger’s.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]


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