Tom Robbins believes in truth in advertising. His novels lure the adventurous and warn the timid with outrageous titles, which accurately predict outrageousness within. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Still Life with Woodpecker, Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas, Skinny Legs and All -- these are not your usual well-behaved titles of popular novels. You won't see Robbins calling his books The Firm or The Notebook.
But for sheer mouthful of chewy syllables, you can't beat the title of Robbins's latest novel -- Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates. It doesn't exactly roll off the tongue; however, it's more appealing than the rejected working title, Syrup of Wahoo. In a recent interview, Robbins explained that he changed the first title because he didn't like the misleading connotations of sweetness ("while the book is upbeat and exuberant, it decidedly is not sweet") and because he kept having to explain to Generation X friends that "wahoo" was a cry of exhilaration that did not require "a dot and a com" after it.
Robbins says he took the title from his own translation of a line from a Rimbaud poem. "While it has quite literal significance within the context of my plot," he adds, "it has wider meanings, as well. All of us who've managed to survive intense love affairs, political confrontations, or periods of personal debauchery might be said to be fierce invalids home from hot climates."
Fierce Invalids, Robbins explains, was inspired "by an entry from Bruce Chatwin's journal, by a CIA agent I met in Southeast Asia, by the mystery surrounding the lost prophecy of the Virgin of Fatima, by the increasing evidence that the interplay of opposites is the engine that runs the universe, and by embroidered memories of old Terry and the Pirates comic books."
Why so long since his last book? "Hey, it's only been five and a half years. And I have no idea where they went. I've been writing, yes; and building a house and traveling and generally following the Charmer's pipes down oblique paths of mysticism and eroticism. Certainly, I'd like to write faster, but whenever I've tried it, the language has suffered. I tend to sift my mental lexicon for the fresher, more unexpected word the way an old prospector pans for the bigger, more valuable nugget. That takes time."
Robbins's many fans won't mind the wait. Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates is everything they've come to expect -- humor, sex, adventure, ferocious rants about society and religion, characters who swear on the Bible and Finnegan's Wake, asides on everything from etymology to violence, and a disregard for anybody else's definition of good taste. Switters, the protagonist, is a gun-toting pacifist anarchist who works for the government. In other words, by embodying contradictions, he is in the tradition of such Robbins heroes as the Woodpecker and Sissy Hankshaw.
Robbins says he never goes back and reads his novels once they've been published. "I'm saving that experience, and any selection of favorites that might ensue, for my golden years. Provided my golden years aren't here already." He does, however, have favorite characters. "I suppose I'll always be in love with Amanda, the uninhibited young nature goddess from Another Roadside Attraction. Although I disguised her as a child of the '60's, she danced directly out of the collective unconscious, did not pass Go, did not give a damn for any stinking $200. At the moment, however, I'd have to say that I'm most particularly fond of Switters, the rascally protagonist of Fierce Invalids."
Not surprisingly, Robbins is impatient with political correctness in the arts, especially the variety that expects writers to stay in their own yards and not trespass upon the sacred turf of some other group. "What novelists do -- what screenwriters and playwrights do -- is get inside other people's heads and look out. The ability to do that convincingly, no matter whose head is so entered, is what separates the real writer from the polemist, the philistine, and the poseur. To say that artists should be limited to portraying their 'own kind' is to say that Shakespeare erred in giving us Lady Macbeth, that Anne Rice's books ought to have been composed by 200-year-old male vampires, or that Bambi should have been written by a deer. Show me, for example, the Japanese woman who's written a more accurate life of the geisha than Arthur Golden and I might be tempted to buy into such a politically correct, asinine notion."
Like many creative children, Robbins seems to have turned to art partially as self-defense against his upbringing. "The family in which I was reared," he remembers, "was kind of a Southern Baptist version of The Simpsons -- except that my father never would have eaten pie off of the floor and I played the part of both Bart and Lisa. Which is to say, I was, on the one hand, a rambunctious little troublemaker, and on the other, a highly sensitive, creative, artistic type." Apparently the combination hasn't faded, because Robbins adds, "That dichotomy of personality can sometimes confound me even today."
However, Robbins credits his background with feeding his yearning for life and art. "Growing up in the mysterious old mountains of North Carolina (there was a Blair witch project behind every ridge), I was fed a fair amount of superstitious brain poison and homogenized ignorant pap." His parents, although not well-educated, were avid readers, and they inspired young Tom to read "numberless books." At school he was known as a basketball player and class clown; he kept his intellectual side secret. "What my background lacked in sophistication, it made up for in natural beauty, colorful language, and ample incentive to overlay numbing Sunday School ennui with dreamy longings for a romantic elsewhere. It gave me an appetite." Despite his anarchic sensibilities, Tom Robbins says that he maintains a regular writing schedule, because "sitting around waiting for inspiration is for amateurs." He's at his desk every morning at ten o'clock, whether, as he puts it, the muse shows up or not. Not surprisingly, Robbins offers no magic formula for the aspiring novelist. "Writing is an enterprise that demands unabated discipline and concentration -- but, by God, it sure beats working."