Tom Robbins’s “Another Roadside Attraction” is wild, screaming ride, a psychedelic roadshow of spewing, spurting words, and a series of tightly written character studies and vignettes that attempt to weave a stronger tapestry of plot than it actually has.
For those venerable old readers who come to Tom Robbins steeped in classical forms of plot, event, point of no return, action and resolution, this book will come as a bit of a shock. This largely comes from the fact that Robbins is one of those writers madly in love with his own writing. He cheerfully drifts into asides, jokes, small characters, events, discusses small points of fact and philosophy at his whim, and indulges his fancies in a somewhat startling fashion, in equally startling language, quite at odds with modern notions of storytelling. This is not in and of itself a weakness, but it does take some getting used to.
The plot – what little one can say of a thin thread of story buried beneath such a bizarre barrage of cheerful language – at first simply buzzes around. Characters are introduced. Amanda, a travelling fortune teller and hippie with a breezy indifference to standard notions of morality and some perplexing attitudes to life in general, meets up with John Paul Ziller, an equally itinerant magician-cum-jazz player-cum-filmmaker and his pet baboon Mon Cul, whose claim to fame rests (quite appropriately) on the fact that he alone in the universe knows a word that rhymes with “orange”. And before you can say “huh?”, love blooms, marriage occurs and the two have set up…what else?….another roadside attraction. Said attraction consisting of a hot dog stand and a flea circus.
The stand becomes sort of a touchstone for the hippies on America’s roadways, and one day up pops John Paul’s friend, L. Westminster “Plucky” Pursell. Plucky is a former college football star turned drug dealer/fixer/ and general all around black market operative, master of love and kung-fu, karate and other esoteric martial arts. Plucky ends up on the lam and finds a dead monk, imepersonates him, and through a series of wildly improbably coincidences interspersed with even more absurd adventures, ends up in the bowels of the Vatican’s catacombs (yes, you heard me…the one in Rome). And, as if Robbins was chanelling David Morrel, we discover a secret assassin’s society, a plot by the church, a dead body which Plucky promptly purloins and then…
It really doesn’t make sense to go on. If you’ve read this far, either in the review or in the book itself, it either makes you groan, reach for the smelling salts and toss the book, or laugh delightedly at the language and skill of wordsmithing, and read on. Your call.
It’s important to realize that a large part of the tone and feeling of this book hearkens back to its time: this thing was written in the waning years of the counterculture in 1971, when hippies were still found on America’s roads preaching Tim Leary’s mantra of “Turning On, Tuning In, and Dropping Out”, the 1973 oil crisis had not hit, and Watergate was still a year in the future. Everything about the characters and their spaced-out hippiness and dreamy attitude reflects this rather easy-going drug-laden atmosphere of – let’s admit it – innocence. An innocence no longer present in our world, alas. Although, if it was quite this weird, I don’t know if I could have dealt with it then, either.
To me, the book’s great strength and weakness is the writing. We are treated to giggling little nuggets of phrasing, like these: “a hangover of near terminal vileness” and he “spent the morning vomiting self-portraits and farting loony tunes and merry melodies.” Or “Purcell appraised the girl with a greasy butcher’s eye, apportioning her into loin chops and rump roasts and nippled filets.” The whole book is replete with such sentences, when not educating us on Monarch butterflies, Marxism, the Catholic Church and the sinister doings of darkly secret agencies. The problem with this is that it leaves the novel neither fish nor fowl. Such lighthearted writing, wildly lunatic experiences, improbable philosophies and outright zany spaced-outedness leaves the reader smiling at more serious point in the book when something of real value is being said.
That dichotomy is never really resolved and while I know where the book was going and nodded and laughed throughout, it never engaged me anywhere. It was something similar to – though far more nutty, and much more wittily written than – Catch-22. So I’ll give it points for scintillating language and take them away for a plot that never does anything for me, and characters whose implausible makeup and outlandish behavior sink the whole experience. I’m sure lovers of the man’s work will take umbrage at this rather cavalier dismissal of all they deem important, but then, isn’t this exactly what Robbins has done?