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Published: Sunday, 4/10/2005

Tom Robbins is serious about having fun

BY TAHREE LANE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

His home, Villa de Jungle Girl, overlooks the quaint waterfront town of La Conner, Wash., on the backwaters of Puget Sound.

I m the fool on the hill, says Tom Robbins, author of eight popular novels, including Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1976).

As that and his other titles suggest (Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas, Skinny Legs and All, Still Life With Woodpecker), Robbins holds playfulness among the greatest of virtues.

This is your old friend from the pineapple plantation in Nova Scotia, is how he begins a telephone call to The Blade.

Famous for his wacky, irreverent, lascivious tales, Robbins, 68, will speak Friday at 4 p.m. in Doermann Theater in University Hall at the University of Toledo. The free lecture is the 16th annual Richard Summers Memorial Lecture, which has brought Nikki Giovanni, Edward Albee, Robert Pinsky, Gwendolyn Brooks, and others to campus.

Playfulness opens doors in consciousness that are closed to the sober and the prudent, says the man who has taken to wearing sunglasses for dramatic effect. Hallucinogenics, which he first experienced in 1963, also contributed to his expanded awareness of awareness. (It is, however, foolish and unproductive to use hallucinogens frequently, he says.)

Robbins describes himself as a romantic Zen hedonist, and his literary apples don t fall far from the tree.

"Wit and playfulness represent a desperately serious transcendence of evil. Humor is both a form of wisdom and a means of survival."

Indeed, it takes a sense of humor to deal with a first-book contract that paid royalties of 1 1/2 cents per copy plus a $2,500 advance for Another Roadside Attraction. Published in 1971, it slowly built an audience by word of mouth.

For years he wrote and eked out a living as a part-time copy editor at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, supplementing his meager income with midnight produce runs to area farms. "I considered it a grant from agribusiness."

He will speak about lousy language in a literary, but not stuffy or dry or prissy talk, he promises.

"Our world isn't made of earth, air and water or even molecules and atoms, our world is made of language," he says. "Can you imagine a school of architecture in which all the emphasis is on floor plans and roof lines but no attention is ever paid to the properties of stone and brick and lumber? Well our creative writing programs focus entirely on structure and generally ignore the inventory of words on which those structures have to be constructed. So that's one reason why so many of our novels are so verbally boring."

Here's Robbin's description of spring in his 2003 novel, Villa Incognito:

"Spring was on the land like an itch. The whole countryside seemed to be scratching itself awake - lazily, luxuriously, though occasionally scratching so hard its nails hit bone, that old cold calcium that lies beneath our tingles. Tiny frogs, raked into alertness, were being scratched from muck and mud. Tiny buds, as bright as blisters, were being scratched from hardwood. The trees themselves, juiced up on sap as Tanuki ever was on booze (though the trees had a great deal more dignity), were scratching long blue notes from the sky."

Paucity of language and imprecise speech may even contribute to mental illness, he suggests. "We use so much bad language that it forms a barrier between ourselves and the truth."

A long-time fan of the Seattle SuperSonics, he was once asked, on the air, why he prefers basketball over baseball and football.

"I said 'I prefer basketball to baseball and football because in basketball, no one expectorates.' He thought I was saying something dirty. He got really flustered and tried to cover it over."

"Consider Shakespeare - most of his plots or characters were borrowed or stolen from other sources, though what made him great was his astonishing genius for language. Shakespeare's long shelf life is due primarily to his love for words and the manner in which he expressed them. If it weren't for his language, Shakespeare would have just been another pretty plagiarist."

UT English professor Russell Reising teaches Robbins' work in his courses. He has "an amazing flair for the bizarre, the sensual, the unorthodox, and the surprising," says Reising.

Contemporary novels often focus on dark issues - cancer, abuse, divorce, rape, racism, murder, addiction, schizophrenia, Robbins notes.

"But to trot them out in book after book on page after page without the transformative magic of humor and imagination, let alone a glimmer of higher consciousness, succeeds only in impeding the advancement of literature and human understanding alike."

Robbins' next book, to be published in September, is a compilation of his short writings over 35 years, including travel articles, short stories, poems, and essays.

His future creative efforts may be painting instead of writing. "Every time one [a novel] starts to come up in my 'garden' I yank it out by the roots. I'm trying to avoid getting involved in one because when I become involved in one I really get involved. Completely. It takes over my life for the three to three-and-one-half years it takes me to write one."

He has been painting a series based on the round, black, frizzy hair of Nancy, she of the cartoon strip that was once called Fritzi Ritz.

"I took her hair and disembodied it. I removed it from her head. Isolated it. And when you do that you find that it's an extremely interesting shape. It's both mechanical and biomorphic at the same time. It's like a machine-tooled amoeba."

The last two in the series are called Nancy's Hair Medusa and Nancy's Hair Buddha.

Robbins is an adventure traveler. His marriage to Alexa, 43, who he met 18 years ago, is a joy, he says. She works as a psychic.

"She's not Madame Love. She has more clients than she can deal with. She's extremely gifted. She is primarily a psychological counselor but she uses the tarot cards as a focusing device."

He deals with a serious vision problem.

"The gods have chosen to entertain me with chronic eyestrain headaches. Very poisonous episodes. So I don't do a lot of reading anymore except on tape."

He has two children; Fleetwood, 33, a book editor in New York City, and Rip, who teaches radio broadcasting and history in a Washington college.

Robbins prefers writers who shake language into a cocktail bubbling with humor and imagination. Recent favorites include The Death of Vishnu by Manil Suri, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich, The Thought Gang by Tibor Fischer, Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon, and Lives of the Saints by Nancy Lemann.

His pick for the greatest American writer of the 20th century? Perhaps, he says, the under-appreciated Nelson Algren (1909-1981), who wrote about life in the nation's despised urban under-belly in The Man with the Golden Arm and other novels.

Tom Robbins will speak at 4 p.m. Friday in Doermann Theater on the third level of University Hall at the University of Toledo. There is no charge.

Parking is available in structures east and west of University Hall. Parking in surface lots is free. A small pay lot is located east of University Hall. Information: 419-530-2318.

Contact Tahree Lane at: tlane@theblade.com or 419-724-6075.



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