You can have your Kesey, your Wolfe, your Thompson. I’ll take a Tom Robbins book any day. Robbins, the author of nine wild and wonderful “countercultural” novels like Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, has a new book titled Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life. Emphatically not an autobiography or even a memoir, rather it describes in a series of stories Robbins’ “lifelong quest to personally interface with the Great Mystery (which may or may not be God) or, at the very least, to further expose myself to wonder.”
Told in his ever forward-moving prose, which bounces up and down over marvelous metaphors, Robbins’ stories and observations about Allen Ginsberg, Joseph Campbell, Timothy Leary, Charles Manson and others are priceless. I hadn’t known, for example, that the Chink in Cowgirls was partly inspired by R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, or that it was a stoned editor at Ballantine Books who deemed Robbins’ first novel, Another Roadside Attraction, worthy.
Robbins participated in the bohemian art scene of Greenwich Village in the '50s, before marijuana or the psychedelics hit. While working for the Seattle Times, where he wrote art reviews and unusual headlines for Dear Abby columns during what he calls “that nondescript period between the end of the beige '50s and the beginning of the Day-Glo '60s,” he read about Gordon Wasson’s sacred mushroom experiments in Life magazine. Having explored Zen, Tantric Hinduism, Sufism and the Tao, he sought Wasson’s experience, but was lead to LSD instead.
Robbins describes his first trip in the book:
There was a also a bowl of ripe plums on the coffee table, and earlier (it could have been thirty minutes earlier, three minutes, or three hours), I’d stared at a plum (for what could have been minutes, three minutes, or three hours), discovering that the purple plum skin was in actuality a subtle chromatic interplay of red, blue, pink, magenta, maroon, sapphire, indigo, russet, rose, carmine, ultramarine, lapis lazuli, and even gold…
The session ends with his consciousness entering a daisy’s, described “like a cathedral made of mathematics and honey.” He credits this life-changing experience with enabling him to lose his “terror of the eternal,” and finding the connection between modern painting and the psychedelic sacraments:
Each…offered humanity a new way of seeing, an enlarged and deepened definition of reality, a freshened and intensely sensual awareness of what it means to be a cognitive mammal on a tiny planet spinning precariously in the backwash of an infinite universe…
Robbins doesn’t similarly describe smoking marijuana, but he does write of visiting Amsterdam “to take the waters.” He also recounts his participation in the historic 1963 LeMar (Legalize Marijuana) event organized by Allen Ginsberg at the Women’s Detention Center in Greenwich Village, “to protest that the prison was crowded with females of all ages whose sole criminal act was the private, orderly, nonviolent inhalation of tiny plumes of smoke given off by a smoldering weed.”
After seeing a Doors concert in 1967, Robbins discovered his voice while writing a review of the show: “I detected an ease, a freedom of expression, a syntax simultaneously wild and precise, a rare blending of reckless abandon and tight control,” which is an excellent description of his writing. He does say, however, that he never writes under the influence of anything, not even coffee, and describes an evening smoking some strong Lebanese hashish while at work, after which “I recall staring at the copy in front of me for an inordinately long time…I don’t believe I won any prizes that night.”
Robbins - whose novels also include Still Life With Woodpecker, Skinny Legs and All, Jitterbug Perfume and Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates - has put his name where his pen is, joining Oliver Stone and a host of other celebrities and public figures signing on to a March 2002 New York Times ad promoting medical marijuana.
Of the '60s, Robbins writes, “It was an extraordinary, magical, even heroic time, that much I’ll never deny, but in my novels and in my life, for better or for worse, I’ve moved on from the '60s decades ago. Wouldn’t one think the era’s detractors in the media could get over it as well?”
Robbins’ June appearance on City Arts and Lectures will be broadcast Aug. 3 on KQED-FM.