Tibetan Peach Pie, the latest non-fiction work from legendary countercultural novelist and journalist Tom Robbins, is subtitled “A True Account of an Imaginative Life.” That may be the best way to sum up this chronological series of vignettes from Robbins’ life, which he refuses to characterize as an autobiography or memoir. Anyone familiar with Robbins’ previous writings knows someone who lived a typical existence could not have possibly generated works such as Jitterbug Perfume, and these true-life tales (which Robbins admits may have become embellished over time) serve as evidence.
Although on the surface, Robbins’ boyhood in Depression-era Appalachia has an all-American quality to it, he doesn’t have to dig too deep into his early life to demonstrate that his wild spirit has always been at the ready. Whether having an attempted bank robbery with a cap gun as a six-year-old foiled by a guard setting off fireworks, selling a pricey radio he won in a raffle to buy books, or throwing himself into the seedy backstage world of every traveling circus that came through town (and there were many), Robbins showed his potential for inspired mischief early on.
After making it through military school, stints at Washington and Lee University (where he worked under Tom Wolfe at the school newspaper) and as an Air Force meteorologist, and finally graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University, Robbins enmeshed himself into the small but lively bohemian scene of Richmond, Virginia. Humorous stories from this time, such as performing as a naked “human baboon” to earn beer money and becoming an expert on the back alleys of otherwise bright and clean Richmond, contrast with more serious recollections such as throwing himself into his lifelong passion for civil rights when faced with the segregation of the era.
Robbins’ life and career really picked up in his early 30s, when he moved to the Seattle area during a brief and disastrous marriage to an alcoholic Richmond heiress. Lucking into full-time work as an art and music critic, Robbins soon gained fame for his unusual and lively critiques. However, in his words, he was creating “carob instead of chocolate.” Finding his literary voice after writing a review of a Doors concert in the late ‘60s, Robbins embarked on the long and difficult process of writing and publishing his first novel, Another Roadside Attraction, and later gained worldwide fame with the publication of subsequent novels Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and Still Life with Woodpecker.
Robbins’ trademark wit and gift for observing the strange and fanciful aspects of everyday existence are in full display throughout the book. Readers of his fiction will also note many familiar themes in his real life. For example, the female-centric author Robbins had a preference for associating with women from an early age, spending large amounts of time with his sisters and female cousins. Seeing a biker with a “floozy” on his arm leaving the local roadhouse made the eight-year-old Robbins determined to get a floozy of his own when he was older, and by his own admission he wound up having many.
He also went through a variety of romantic misadventures with multiple wives and girlfriends, until finally finding true love with his current wife Alexa in the late 1980s. Other familiar Robbins obsessions, ranging from clowns to Japanese culture, make prominent appearances. He is also quite open about his use of LSD, which he characterizes as a “white rabbit” he discovered in his early 30s, as a crucial step in his creative and personal development. Robbins is adamant that hallucinogens and cannabis had a positive influence both on his own life and American culture in general, though he cautions that they have been tragically misused by those simply seeking a good time rather than enlightenment.
While not a name-dropper, Robbins does share anecdotes about a number of the celebrities he has encountered and befriended over the years. Timothy Leary, a huge fan of his writing, seeks him out and becomes a close friend. As a late night DJ in the mid-1960s, Robbins encounters a hippie musician named “Charlie” who he finds both charismatic and dangerous. Charles Manson would prove him right on both observations a few years later. Checking into a hotel at the same time as rock legend Neil Young, Robbins can’t help but take satisfaction in the desk clerk fawning over him and not recognizing a miffed Young. William F. Buckley sneers at him during an Esquire dinner and he escorts Debra Winger to the Oscars. The FBI considers him a suspect in the Unabomber case due to his physical resemblance to the infamous police sketch and also the anarchic tone and detailed bomb-making instructions found in Still Life with Woodpecker.
Tibetan Peach Pie is the product of a literary master reflecting on his extremely colorful life with flair and style. Robbins newcomers would be better served checking out a few of his fictional works first, but anyone who loves Robbins the novelist will love Robbins the non-memoirist. Time spent with this book is like time spent with the most interesting friend you could ever hope to know.