I’d never heard of Tom Robbins and his books aren’t ones I normally see gracing the shelves of my local bookstore (not unless they are haunting the inventory at a second hand shop). So naturally, I was largely unacquainted with his work. I first encountered Still Life With Woodpecker at work. One of our regular customers is downsizing their home library and graciously decided to bestow his books upon us. As a result, our backroom is littered with books. Two giant storage totes, boxes, and bags. There are books under and behind chairs, on the desk, on top of the fridge, crawling out from the shelves. Clearly, I always have an abundance of things to read at work. Though, the space to read them is becoming increasingly less abundant.
When I picked up Still Life and read the back cover I thought it sounded a bit odd. (Upon a cursory Google search the author apparently did acid in the ‘60s, which makes a lot of sense.) Indeed, Robbins’ book seems the kind that would take on a cult following—a small, but dedicated group who swear by his literary talent and glean literary merit from what the more critical might consider cheap thrills and trash literature. In fact, a critic once said of Robbins, “[he] writes like Dolly Parton looks,” which I don’t imagine to be a compliment. (No offense to Mrs. Parton.)
At its core Still Life is a love story between an outlaw nicknamed the Woodpecker, who has a penchant for blowing things up with dynamite, and Leigh-Cheri, a princess of indefinite European origin who is exiled with her family to Seattle in a blackberry plagued mansion. (At the end of the novel the mansion is entirely engulfed in blackberries.)
Leigh-Cheri meets the Woodpecker (Bernard Mickey Wrangle) on a trip to the Geo-Therapy Care Fest in Hawaii, a conference that is set to tackle the problems of sexism, racism, and environmentalism, among other things (and is said to have Ralph Nader in attendance). By accident, fate, or too many shots of tequila, the Woodpecker who means to bomb the Care Fest, bombs a UFO conference held in the same hotel. It is due to this mistake (and the Woodpecker’s crime being spotted by none other than the princess’ servant, who later develops a cocaine habit and becomes queen, try to keep up) that Leigh-Cheri and Bernard cross paths. The princess resolves to turn him into the authorities, but falls in love instead. But their love-at-first-sight romance is thwarted, when in trying to court the princess, Bernard, in a moment of neglect, accidentally sits on and kills the Queen’s beloved Chihuahua, and is arrested.
Two and a half years pass before Leigh-Cheri and Bernard meet again. For months in mourning Leigh-Cheri locks herself up in her attic and tries to recreate the feel of her lover’s jail cell. This sequestering receives public notice and creates a fad, which Bernard in a letter to Leigh-Cheri denounces. Heartbroken, Leigh-Cheri vows to put the Woodpecker out of her mind and reemerges from her attic and agrees to marry an Arab suitor (A’ben Fizel) upon completion of a pyramid. (The power of pyramids being a mystery she is intent on solving due to months spent contemplating a box of Camel cigarettes.)
The night before her wedding Leigh-Cheri gets news of Bernard’s death. Her jealous husband-to-be had him killed. In despair she goes to the heart of the pyramid she had erected for some kind of solace and there she finds Bernard waiting, quite alive. Upon seeing their reunion embrace A’ben locks the door to the pyramid with the intention of letting the pair starve to death. He makes up a story that extremists kidnapped the princess and paints the pyramid black as a monument to his beloved. Leigh-Cheri and Bernard survive a little over a month on champagne and wedding cake before Leigh-Cheri blows the door off the room with the dynamite Bernard always seems to have on his person. The lovers survive the explosion but both end up deaf. The novel ends with the two of them living their lives out in domestic bliss in the mansion overgrown by blackberries.
Robbins’ book was at times entertaining but I will admit there were several instances that I did start to lose interest. He meanders a bit (there is a running bit about a typewriter independent to the story) and sometimes his insights into the dilemma of romanticism and activism, individualism and society border on preachy and pedantic. At times he is very clever, but other times he seems to be trying to be overly clever and the writing loses its charm.
But there are quite a few gems in Robbins’ story, a few instances when the writing verges on brilliant before retreating back into the absurd. His narrative is colorful, his use of language playful, and the metaphors he uses are nothing if not inventive, and always strange. He refers to a particular part of the Leigh-Cheri’s anatomy as a “peachfish” and also occasionally “peachclam.” (I should note I had a very uncomfortable conversation with my mother about the accuracy of these terms.) He also details one of the most unappetizing, if not entirely accurate sex scenes I’ve ever read. “Slurp and slobber, smack and excess water.”
Even with its glaring flaws, Still Life With Woodpecker does manage to be charming in spite of itself. While sometimes tedious, it can be fun, if you’re along for the ride.