Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Top 20 Books, #2

My penultimate book in the top 20 list is Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins.

I was introduced to Tom Robbins' landmark book Even Cowgirls Get the Blues my junior year at Occidental College, and I was enthralled with his language and writing instantly. His use of simile and metaphor were astounding to me, as they were so out of the box. "Who thinks like that?" I thought. Just take a gander:

Siwash Ridge had become as quiet and inanimate as the geology book that might describe its formations. Indian summer, the ham, was taking yet another curtain call, and the hills, warmed into an expansive mood, heaped bouquets of asters at its feet. Goldenrod, too. And butterfly weed. Giant sunflowers, like junkie scarecrows on the nod, dozed in one spot with their dry heads drooped upon their breastbones. Their lives extended another day, flies buzzed everything within their range, monotonously eulogizing themselves, like the patriots who persist in praising the glory of a culture long after it is decadent and doomed.

I had never read anything like this. Comparing sunflowers to "junkie scarecrows"? Wow. So evocative. At the time, I was dating the person who had introduced me to the book. Summer dawned and we saw each other only on weekends. During the week, we talked on the phone and read the book together. At the time it seemed romantic, but in retrospect, it seems geeky and pathetic.

However, I did not let that, or what turned out to be a dismal failure of a relationship sour me on Tom Robbins. Instead, I read and read and read some more. For many years, I regarded him as my favorite author.

Someone else who went to college at Occidental, a woman named Laurie Parker (but not the one who was a producer on the Cowgirls movie), was also a big fan of Tom. I still remember her telling me about when she had met him, doing an interview for a publication in Seattle. Laurie was a well-traveled woman, and was editor-in-chief at the school newspaper. She knew her stuff, and she was not easily impressed. When I asked her what Tom Robbins was like, she stared intently at me and said "He was incredible and oozed sexiness. I would have [expletive deleted] him on the spot." That was indeed a lofty compliment, and I held the author in even greater esteem having heard that.

After Cowgirls, I read Jitterbug Perfume, which I consider my favorite of his books. In a nutshell, JP's plot summary goes like this:

Jitterbug Perfume is an epic. which is to say, it begins in the forests of ancient Bohemia and doesn't conclude until nine o'clock tonight [Paris time]. It is a saga, as well. A saga must have a hero, and the hero of this one is a janitor with a missing bottle. The bottle is blue, very, very old, and embossed with the image of a goat-horned god. If the liquid in the bottle is actually is the secret essence of the universe, as some folks seem to think, it had better be discovered soon because it is leaking and there is only a drop of two left.

The summary doesn't do the book justice....it is a wild, free-ranging romp through the annals of history. And it's all about beets...and perfume...and so much more.

You can read the opening of the book here on amazon.com.

Robbins' earlier books, Another Roadside Attraction and Still Life with Woodpecker are also good, but paled next to the wonderfulness of Jitterbug. It wasn't until Skinny Legs and All, a wonderfully prescient novel, published in 1990, that Robbins again nailed his stride. I still recall driving to a Crown Books in Monrovia to pick up my fresh copy that same month. Not sure why I went to Monrovia to get it, but I did. And I recall temping at that time for Ralph's Grocery stores, working in an industrial park off of San Fernando Road in Glendale. I read Skinny Legs before, during, and after working some crazy 5:00 AM to 2:00 PM shift data-entering biographical information on check-cashing card customers.

When Half-Asleep in Frog Pajamas came out in 1994, it was a bit of a let-down, although still great Robbins reading.

And then, the wait. In May, 2001, he released his next novel, Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates. It was then that I got to finally meet Tom, at Barnes & Noble, Union Square, in New York.

He did a reading and answered questioned. I observed from the front row, disappointed that my friends Janet and Jill, both big Robbins fans themselves, couldn't be there to enjoy it with me. At the signing afterwards, Tom inscribed all I had for him, and this is one of my best author signing stories...

He signed my paperback copy of Cowgirls, a first edition that was published in paperback simultaneously with the extremely rare hardcover edition, my Woodpecker, Jitterbug, Skinny Legs, and Frog Pajamas. I also had him sign a paperback original of the book for Gus Van Sandt's scripts for My Own Private Idaho and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. My friend Brian in Toronto had Van Sandt sign it to me previously "To Bill, Love, Gus Van Sandt." Tom Robbins added his signature as well, with the inscription, "To Bill, With Love from me, too!"

But the story gets better. My friend Janet was a huge fan of Robbins' novel Still Life with Woodpecker because its protagonist was a redhead, as is Janet and, for that matter, Tom.
I had him sign her copy of Fierce Invalids and showed him a photo of Janet I had brought along to see to whom he was inscribing the book. It was a nice picture of Janet and Tom wrote one of the best inscriptions I have ever seen:

"To Janet...Thanks for that night in Istanbul! Wow!! --Tom Robbins"

As one might guess from my lengthy post on this book, it as much a testament to Jitterbug Perfume as it is to its author, Tom Robbins.

Stay tuned for the final installment of my Top 20 Books list!

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