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BOOK REVIEW

Zen-like wisdom from Tom Robbins

Wild Ducks Flying Backward Tom Robbins Bantam: 272 pp., $25

October 11, 2005|Bernadette Murphy | Special to The Times

WRITER Tom Robbins is probably best known for his irreverent novels written in the 1970s and '80s, tales populated with oddball characters, filled with fervent philosophical opinions and bursting at their bindings with his trademark wordplay.

There's "Still Life With Woodpecker," in which a pack of Camel cigarettes holds the secrets of the universe, and Princess Leigh-Cheri Furstenberg-Barcalona falls in love with a mad bomber. "Another Roadside Attraction" features the body of Christ, stolen from the Vatican and now harbored at a Washington state hot dog stand; and "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" highlights the lively Sissy Hankshaw, a gal with an oversized set of thumbs and an unquenchable love of hitchhiking.

"Wild Ducks Flying Backward" is a catchall collection of Robbins' short writings, many journalistic in nature. In these pieces, as in his novels, Robbins covers familiar territory: how one enters the heart of mysticism, frolics amid the delights of sex and gambols for meaning in an increasingly deadened, overly serious and commercialized world. His work is steeped in a 1960s optimistic hippie sensibility that is both familiar and -- today, alas -- somewhat foreign.

A number of the pieces were penned for periodicals like Esquire, Playboy and the New York Times Magazine, including travel essays on Robbins' adventures in Africa, Sumatra, Florida and a place he calls "the Canyon of the Vaginas" in west-central Nevada. Then there are song lyrics that seem disembodied with no tune to hum along, and bland poems. (Though he has fun with the poems, at heart he's more of a storyteller than poet.)

Robbins also includes his responses to questions from magazines such as Road & Track ("Tell Us About Your First Car"), Life ("What Is the Meaning of Life?") and Contemporary Literature ("Are You a Realist?"). The book meanders here and there, stopping to examine whatever catches Robbins' eye, hopscotching in time from the late 1960s to the present day with no tidy chronology.

Amid this smorgasbord are serious essays dealing with such weighty issues as art criticism, along with a hefty dose of philosophical musings -- "Our greatest human adventure is the evolution of consciousness. We are in this life to enlarge the soul, liberate the spirit, and light up the brain," he writes.

But mostly (as Cyndi Lauper sang of girls a generation ago), Robbins just wants to have fun, cavorting with language as if it were a playmate with whom he can dance, woo, rock and roll.

Writing of the violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, for instance, his words and imagery seem to imitate the insistent flow of the music itself. "[G]rab your violin as if it were a stolen chicken," he commands the musician, "roll your perpetually startled eyes at it, scold it with that split beet dumpling you call a mouth; fidget, fuss, flounce, flick, fume -- and fiddle: fiddle us through the roof, fiddle us over the moon ... saw those strings as if they were the log of the century, fill the hall with the ozone of passion; play Mendelssohn for us, play Brahms and Bruch; get them drunk, dance with them, wound them, and then nurse their wounds, like the eternal female that you are; play until the cherries burst in the orchard, play until wolves chase their tails in the tearooms; play until we forget how we long to tumble with you in the flower beds under Chekhov's window; play, you big wild gypsy girl, until beauty and wildness and longing are one."

It's a breathless kind of writing that at times is closer to a musical improvisation than traditional prose, and through which, for one instant, connections are made between the subject at hand and all that surrounds it; the underlying thread that unites humanity and the world we inhabit is made evident. And then, bam, the work moves back into the realm of the everyday, as he meets journalistic deadlines and answers questions like, "How would you evaluate John Steinbeck?"

Part philosopher, part court jester, Robbins uses sparkling phrases mixed with over-the-top puns to impart his Zen-like wisdom.

In doing so, he squeezes the OED until quips, lines of assonance and alliteration, prose poetry, similes and metaphors spatter across the page, occasionally arranging themselves into art.

A grab bag of both Robbins' best and some mediocre work, "Wild Ducks" gives us a glimpse into the last three decades as viewed by this iconoclastic writer. For many, Robbins' sensibility is like popping in a piece of Bazooka bubble gum. Imbued with the feelings of an earlier, more innocent era, it's playful, pink, sticky and sweet. And more often than not, a huge amount of fun.

Bernadette Murphy, a regular contributor to Book Review, is the author of "Zen and the Art of Knitting," a work of narrative nonfiction.

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