Sunday, October 24, 2010

Reading When I was Youthful

A little book sale brought me happily back to more youthful times and tastes!
by Charlie Leck

I have written here about the most important books I’ve ever read – not in a worldly sense, or national sense, or even as cultural accomplishments – but books that effected and affected me the most of all the books that I had ever read. However, I have never written about the books that I just and simply enjoyed the most; that is, books that I found to be the most entertaining. Some of the novels of Tom Robbins are among those. You know, there's a big difference between Dostoevsky and Tom Robbins.

Yesterday (Saturday), I stopped at a book sale in the Corcoran Neighborhood in South Minneapolis. I wandered through three rooms of books that were semi-neatly stacked on long, narrow tables. There my eyes, by chance, scanned across a row of six or seven titles by Tom Robbins. I had read them all except for the last one among them – Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates.1 Of course, I reached out and grabbed the hardcover volume that looked as if it had been cared for lovingly; and, indeed, there, on the title page, was the embossed library impression of Eric A. Gustafson. The price for the hardcover volumes on that table was a $1.50.

I feathered the pages and was stopped by some words that sprung out at me on page 309:

“As a matter of fact, he worked her chador off her shoulders, unhooked her bra, and bared her breasts. She didn’t object, though the breasts themselves, livid and alert, seemed almost to blink in astonishment at their exposure.”

How stunningly simple and astonishingly captivating! It was a vaguely familiar word that drew me to the sentences – chador. I knew it came from the middle east or, perhaps, from Asia – India, most likely. It had, I thought, to do with religious garb – a hooded gown from head to toe in black or dark, drab colors.

My eyes strolled to the page on the left – the opening page of a paragraph – and there I saw her name, Domino. It didn’t take much scanning until I realized the chador was a nun’s habit and Domino was a sister of Jesus in Peru.

“The first night that they met in the tower and lay on the rug (Switters never dared to test that floor with his feet), admiring a moon that looked as if it had been oiled by a Kurdish rifleman and pointing at the satellites that skittered from sky-edge to sky-edge like waterbugs crossing a cow creek, Domino confessed, with a minimum embarrassment and no shame at all, that she had ‘a big crash’ on him. Switters, ever the language man, was on the verge of correcting her English when it occurred to him that being infatuated with the likes of himself was, indeed, probably more akin to a ‘crash’ than a ‘crush.’

That rascal, Tom Robbins, I chuckled. All his books were so profane with surprising twists and exploding plots. Humor was rampant and the world was not treated by him with reverence. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues2 was one of the most enjoyable novels I’d ever read. I remember being entranced by it and in it as I read its pages. I think it’s included in my list of the most important books I’ve ever read. I have a first edition of it here in my library and first editions, too, of Another Roadside Attraction,3 Skinny Legs and All,4 Jitterbug Perfume,5 and Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas 6.

I wondered why I had stopped reading and collecting his volumes there. Why hadn’t I purchased this current volume before this? Odd! Aren’t mysteries like this interesting to you? What crisis or momentous matter was happening in my life when it was published that I didn’t notice or care?

Have you read Even Cowgirls Get the Blues? If you haven’t, and you enjoy novels that deal with our culture in America, you really should. Well, check that! I’ll add a caveat that you should if you can handle his flagrant wit and language (because Cowgirls is loaded with it) – stuff like these little paragraphs from Jitterbug Perfume

“She needed help, but God was in a meeting whenever she rang, and the Daughters of the Daily Special had postponed her grant almost as often as she had postponed going to bed with Ricki. With Ricki, her sponsor, turning hostile, Priscilla had to assume that the grant might never come through. ‘Well, shit,’ she said. ‘Shit, shit, shit. I’ve got no choice but to make that call.

“She shoved the Kotex box back in the cabinet, pulled on some stiff jeans, dipped a fistful of coins from the fishbowl, and ran down the hall, not even looking to see if she might have run over a beet. It was late, but she knew her party had a habit of working into the night. Her finger was trembling, but she managed to dial.

“The wall phone swallowed the quarters, Priscilla swallowed her pride.

“‘Hello, Stepmother,’ she said.

“There was a pause. Then:

“‘Where are you?’

“Madame Lily Devalier always asked ‘Where are you?’ in a way that insinuated that there were only two places on earth one could be: New Orleans and somewhere ridiculous.”

Ahh, Robins is wonderful. I’d forgotten that I use to promote him as my favorite writer. I was more impudent back then.

The dust jacket of this new acquisition says that Italy’s Fernanda Pivano once called Robbins “one of the most dangerous writers in the world.” That’s something that must obviously have been said in America’s curiously insane 70s. A writer who receives such acclaim must draw your attention. No?

1. Robbins, Tom: Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates [2000, Bantam Press, NY]

2. Robbins, Tom: Even Cowgirls Get the Blues [1976 (first edition), Houghton Mifflin, NY]

3. Robbins, Tom: Another Roadside Attraction [1971 (first edition), Doubleday, NY]

4. Robbins, Tom: Skinny Legs and All [1990 (first edition), Bantam Press, NY]

5. Robbins, Tom: Jitterbug Perfume [1984 (first edition, Bantam Press, NY]

6. Robbins, Tom: Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas [1994 (first edition), Bantam Press, NY]


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