International Writers Magazine: Review
Ducks Flying Backward:
The Short Writings Of Tom Robbins
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
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. Dont 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 countem, if only there was an
ounce of wit or originality there. Theres 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, McDonalds 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 artists 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,
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. Its 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 its 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 Nimoys 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 hes 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
ones duties as a critic.
Luckily, this critic found this book lying about the office of
his mothers 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 hed 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
arts 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. Lets hope Tim Robbinss Collected Prose betters
© Dan Schneider November 2006
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