Tom Robbins is one of my favorite authors, a secular buddhist with a small b, an absurdist who believes that everything in this material vale dissolves in paradox and cosmic laughter.
The new book on him, just out, is a collection of his interviews, Conversations with Tom Robbins (Literary Conversations Series), nicely edited by Liam O. Purdon and Beef Torrey. We are also indebted to Torrey for his part in bringing us the magnificent Jim Harrison: A Comprehensive Bibliography, 1964-2008.
Tom Robbins has always included secular buddhist Jim Harrison on the shortlist of his favorite authors. In a 1982 interview, Robbins said "When Jim Harrison strayed from the dark side into the light side with his novel, Warlock, the critics who had been washing his feet (and rightly so) now began to dice them with razor blades. He was punished for going AWOL from Camp Desperation. Yet Warlock is just as tough and true, in its own way, as Harrison's earlier work."
In his latest interview with Torry, first published in this book, Robbins talks about his affinity with Jim Harrison for food writing, citing Harrison's The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand and his own "Til Lunch Do Us Part" (included in the collection Wild Ducks Flying Backward). He seems to always be considering "the jelly doughnut, that plump pastry Pantheon, that unbroken circle, that female breast swollen with sweetness..."
Robbins also often discusses Nelson Algren and Henry Miller. He laments that these authors have either been forgotten or deliberately ignored, especially by the academic community.
Robbins says, "I suppose it's mandatory to refer to Algren as a 'realist,' despite the fact that the gritty pyrotechnics--the mixture of funk and liquid hydrogen--that lit up his paragraphs rocketed him into a zone more real than either realism or surrealism. Yes, and although I would without hesitation place his name in contention for the title of Greatest American Author of the 20th Century, and although I wrote a weekly column entitled "Walks On The Wildside" for my college newspaper, the presence of otherness in my work derives from my Asian and mythological studies, as well as from personal experience (psychedelic and otherwise), not one twig of it directly traceable to Algren's sooty urban elm."
"If anything in Algren influenced me, it would have been neither his characters nor his milieu, but the big jangling poetics , the deceptively sensitive slapstick humor, and the verb-surprises-noun bittersweet junkyard magic show of his style. That's not exactly traceable, either, although one could do worse than apprentice oneself to a supreme stylist. A novel without style is like a swan without feathers: it's just another plucked chicken."
"Anyone looking for early influences on my work, however, will need to shift their gaze beyond these shores. Specifically, they'll have to call out, in their best French accent, the names Francois Rabelais, Arthur Rimbaud, Blaise Cendrars, and most loudly, Alfred Jarry. Jarry's Exploits and Opinions of Dr Faustroll Pataphysician infected me like a virus, a feverish pathology for which there would be no cure except distance. . ."
Robbins also discusses Thomas Pynchon, Tom McGuane, Hunter Thompson, Haruki Murakami, Ken Kesey, and others. Fun to read, as Robbins himself is fun to read.
Books about books make up a considerable amount of my reading life, and I'll need a designated day every week to write about them. Sunday seems like the right day.