I have been reading Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates, by Tom Robbins. I bought the book in the indie bookstore in the Milwaukee airport – it’s an odd location for what I’d call a traditional old bookstore. It’s not a chain, not the typical ‘newstand’ style of airport store that sells overpriced candy, a zillion magazines, and bags of mixed nuts along with t-shirts for the local sports team, but an independently owned store that has a locked up section of rare first-editions and autographed old books, with no discernible Best Seller section.
When I was much younger, I devoured Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Still Life with Woodpecker, Skinny Legs and All and Jitterbug Perfume. I couldn’t get enough of the wild irreverence and oddly (but interestingly) placed philosophical meanderings in his writing. Those same qualities are present in Fierce Invalids, and the book is a supreme example of Robbins’ acrobatic ability with words. It opens as follows.
“The naked parrot looked like a human fetus spliced onto a kosher chicken. It was so old it had lost every single one of its feathers, even its pinfeathers, and its bumpy, jaundiced skin was latticed by a network of rubbery blue veins. “Pathological,” muttered Switters, meaning not simply the parrot but the whole scene, including the shrunken old woman in whose footsteps the bird doggedly followed as she moved about the darkened villa. The parrot’s scabrous claws made a dry, scraping noise as they fought for purchase on the terra-cotta floor tiles, and when, periodically, the creature lost its footing and skidded an inch or two, it issued a squawk so quavery and feeble that it sounded as if it were being petted by the Boston Strangler. Each time it squawked, the crone clucked, whether in sympathy or disapproval one could not tell, for she never turned to her devoted little companion but wandered aimlessly from one piece of ancient wooden furniture to another in her amorphous black dress.”
and a few pages later:
” … [Switters] was remembering an actress he used to know, who, in order to entice a tiny trained terrier to follow her around during a movie scene, had had to have scraps of raw calf’s liver stapled to the soles of her high-heeled shoes. Thinking of that terrier magnetized by meat-baited slippers reminded him then of the old bald parrot that had waddled after its mistress … many months before … That’s the way the mind works: the human brain is genetically disposed toward organization, yet if not tightly controlled, will link one imagerial fragment to another on the flimsiest of pretense and in the most freewheeling manner, as it if takes a kind of organic pleasure in creative association, without regard for logic or chronological sequence. Now, it appears that this prose account has unintentionally begun in partial mimicry of the mind. Four scenes have occurred at four different locations and four separate times, some set apart by months or years. And while they do maintain chronological order and a connective element (Switters), and while the motif is a far cry from the kind of stream-of-consciousness technique that makes Finnegans Wake simultaneously the most realistic and the most unreadable book ever written (unreadable precisely because it is so realistic), still, alas, the preceding is probably not the way in which an effective narrative ought properly to unfold – not even in these days when the world is showing signs of awakening from its linear trance, its dangerously restrictive sense of itself as a historical vehicle chugging down a one-way street toward some preordained apocalyptic goal. Henceforth, this account shall gather itself at an acceptable starting point (every beginning in narration is somewhat arbitrary and the one that follows is no exception), from which it shall then move forward in a so-called timely fashion, shunning the wantonly tangential influence of the natural mind and stopping only occasionally to smell the adjectives or kick some ass.”
I am again amazed at his ability with words, and how easily he breaks the rules of fiction, as seen above when he abandons the story line abruptly and speaks directly – author to reader.