When I was twenty years old I was into great writers like Camus and Kafka. Chris was lending his father a hand at the grocery store while studying to enter the School of Fine Arts and I was invited some noon during a summer to keep him company.
Surely the scenery of fruits and greens did not suit him. He was long-haired, wearing colorful harem pants and also the necessary beret was resting lightly over his left eyebrow.
He explained to me the differences between the various types of aubergines and he showed me which were the Abate Fetel, as well as the other kinds of pears. Then we sat to have a coffee and he talked to me about his paintings.
Chris is a Leo, so he has no doubt whatsoever when he sets his mind on something – and of course he is never wrong. His self-confidence wraps him like a marzipan halo, whereas I, a Scorpio and everything else in water, take the shape of the container that offers me hospitality. But no matter, Lao Che said that water is the most powerful element (nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it).
While he was talking me through his ambitious plans, my gaze fell upon a book next to the cash register. On the cover, a demon was putting his arms around a callipygian red-hair mortal (although, far from mortal). It was a two-a-penny illustration for pulp novels, yet I couldn’t help myself but take hold of it.
I have this urge since I was a little boy. When I see a book I want to hold it in my hands, scrutinize it, have a closer look, smell it (scarcely taste it) and if I like the vibes I get, I want to make it mine – by reading it, don’t be perverted, but I like the way you are thinking.
It was Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins. Chris gave me a bollocking for not being aware of him and lent me the book. By the following day that I was done with it, I was on the verge of tears; because it was over.
This is a trademark of Robbins’ books: you read them at such a fast pace and as the end is coming closer, as you feel the weight of the pages shifting to the left side, you’re getting anxious, you feel sorry because you know that you are drawing at the end of a beautiful experience.
Reading Robbins is just like having the best sex of your life. You don’t want it to end, you don’t want to be done, you are not interested in orgasm itself, but in being horny ad infinitum.
The only consolation when Robbins’ books (and good sex) are over is that you can have another round on them and that the next time they might be even better. The bad thing is when there is no book of Robbins left to read – and also when you are at an age when Viagra cannot be of much help.
I finished Jitterbug Perfume and recommended it to all my friends. All of them did read it and all of them experienced the same excitement – and frustration when it was over – as I did.
But then something weird happened. The book refers to beetroots, not to aubergines. With these reddish roots, some ancient god concocted the elixir of life somewhere in Babylonia or perhaps Arcadia.
Then, the devilish goat-legged would leave beetroots outside the door of a sexy New-Yorker (somewhere at the beginning of the book, Robbins speaks of some hair of Cherry’s cut fur on her soap and I still remember visualizing this in my mind’s eye, back then when I was twenty years old).
The most astonishing was that one morning when I got up my mother asked me if I had dropped a beetroot. I tried to figure out what she implied. It was a very Freudian question.
“I found a beetroot outside the door, on the balcony”.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about” came my reply, bristling with the well-known audacity of twenty-year-olds who reckon they know everything.
Then I remembered the book.
“Just a coincidence” I thought and I went over to the house of a friend to listen to Waterboys.
“Something strange happened” she told me as we were listening to The Pan Within. In the morning, my mother found a beetroot”.
“What do you mean? Where did she find it?”
“Just outside our door”.
I was baffled momentarily and then I told her that the same thing exactly occurred to my house. We had just finished the Jitterbug Perfume and we were witnessing passages from the book turning real in our lives. If Pan appeared out of thin air, we would invite him in for an orgy.
The mystery was solved, the beautiful daydream where magic happens to the real world was wiped out when the third of the company popped up, who had also read the book.
It was Andrew, who would later become a psychologist, but he was so beautifully unbalanced who would run into the night to leave beetroots outside the doors of his friends’ houses, like a latter-day goat-legged.
Since then, I have read everything by Tom Robbins and he is the only writer to do so (well, almost everything and you will see what I mean).
Robbins’ style is entertaining, but at the same time philosophical.
His talent is two-fold.
First and foremost, it pulls off to make a believer out of you, he makes you BELIEVE in the most unimaginable things. In his past life, he was probably Saint Paul; and it is a dead certainty that if he ever founded a religion, he would have many followers. I declare myself a devotee beforehand.
Secondly, his metaphors are spot-on, peerless. Sometimes he is over-egging the pudding by cramming three or four of them in a sentence, but they are so ingenious that he gets away with this overshot.
Did I say two-fold? There is a third veil of his talent. Robbins knocks you dead. Even if death is the topic, he will manage a smile out of you. This is the peak of his talent: he drops a reminder that life, no matter how tragic it occasionally gets, is laughable after all.
Yes, when you read Robbins, you realize that Camus and Kafka are way too Europeans, no comedy at all, whereas he is more Aristophanes-like, a latter-day comic, a clown, a jester, a joker (overshadowing sanejoker!)
When I feel low, I will pick a book by Robbins or Bukowski from the public library. The first because he was living in the swamp and stuck out his head and the latter because he dived his head into the swarm and made bubbles – in a choice of different colours and tastes.
I’m wrapping up this text because I have to get some sleep – in five hours I must get up.
I wrote that Robbins’ books are like good sex that you want to last forever and that I have read nearly all of them.
I have skipped his first one, Another Roadside Attraction, which I started to read but I didn’t get far with it. I saved it for future use, it is a Robbinsian Ark.
I’ll read it when I won’t be able to have sex so as to remember the one of two best pleasures in my book. The second is reading books, just like the ones that Robbins wrote.
The first one, no matter what we say – and those who deny it are potential murderers – is sex.
PS: In case you haven’t read any book by Tom Robbins, or any book recently for that matter, I urge you to start off with Jitterbug Perfume or Skinny Legs and All.
Because if it is the last book you are about to read, because death is close or because you drink and drive or simply because life and death are facts of life, then it has to be a Robbins’ book, any of it will do.
It would be a pity to leave this ephemeral world behind, without having read one –at least –book by that clown.
And if this is the last day of your life, your last wish, I suggest you forget the books and have sex. But I am a Scorpio.
PPS: I wrote this text on July 22, 2016 and 84 years ago, today, Tom Robbins was born. Many happy returns of the day Mr. Robbins, thank you for everything.
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Translated by Alexandros Mantas: