Yes, this is rather mainstream for me. I’m not in the habit of reviewing books that have appeared on the New York Times Best Sellers List. For one thing, it increases the chances of the amateurish nature of my offerings being found out. For another, such reviews are surely unneeded and are destined to have even less value than my reviews of niche releases. But I’ve never let the lack of need deter me from writing and, as for being caught impersonating a reviewer, I’ll take my chances. Just like Tom Robbins did at the Seattle Times.
Although the book’s subtitle is “A True Account of an Imaginative Life”, the back cover announces, in all caps, that “THIS IS NOT AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY”. That is also, with a quieter font, the first sentence inside the book. A paragraph later, Robbins also claims this isn’t a memoir but he doesn’t really stick with it. He does make a pretty good stab at explaining why this isn’t an autobiography plus I visited a couple of websites making their own stabs. The most commonly accepted differences between an autobiography and a memoir seem to be the timeline and degree of fact checking. As for timeline, Tibetan Peach Pie might not start with the author’s birth but it doesn’t miss by much (he is seven or eight months old in the first tale told) and it may not be 100% chronological but it doesn’t miss by much in that regard, either. In terms of fact checking, the whole book does seem to come from Robbins’ memory without much corroboration or documentation which does support the not-autobiography claim. So, if you’ve set your sights on a Tom Robbins autobiography, this isn’t it. But it is as close as you’re likely to get and that is the point of the old Tibetan peach pie story and probably (I’m guessing here) the point of this book’s title.
Tom Robbins is an English wordsmith whose product I might devour for its own sake regardless of content. If Tom Robbins wrote those End User License Agreements for Microsoft or Apple I’m guessing that a few people might actually read them. Tibetan Peach Pie is, of course, infinitely more interesting and readable than an EULA but it’s not quite as interesting and readable as Another Roadside Attraction or Still Life with Woodpecker. At least I’ve serious doubts that it’s that interesting unless you’ve read those and/or other Robbins novel and are already a fan. In fact, Jason Sheean, in his NPR review, suggests that “you gotta really like Tom Robbins to want to read that one”. I basically agree but believe that something similar could be said about every autobiography or almost-autobiography.
Robbins’ life has been interesting as well as imaginative. Tibetan Peach Pie includes stories from his North Carolina beginnings through his Virginia college days and Air Force deployment in Korea to his long time Washington state residency. There are some good stories here. Even a few brushes with danger. As a toddler he almost did himself in by pulling a pot of boiling cocoa from the stove onto his chest. In New York, he recklessly takes the chalk from a gang member marking territory to correct his spelling. As a successful author indulging in adventure travel, he spends a sleepless night in a Timbuktu hotel while a sword wielding local raves outside about a perceived affront involving camel rental.
Most of the stories, however, are about normal everyday impulsive free-spirited goofy behavior that might put his career or relationship, but not his life, at risk. As a starving student he unwittingly ignites a gardener’s rage by chowing down on a prize winning chrysanthemum. At the second meeting of a woman who had stormed out on one of his poetry readings, Robbins blasts her for her rudeness, she proposes marriage, and he accepts. On another adventure outing, this time in Sumatra, he reigns as King of the (former) Cannibals for a day. Like I said, normal, everyday.
Robbins’ success is the result of his wonderful word craft but he has seen his share of luck. As a youngster in North Carolina, Robbins won a coveted radio when his was the second raffle ticket drawn. The ticket pulled ahead of his was the only one that had not been sold. As the end of a temporary job at the Seattle Times approached, the paper’s art critic departed and Robbins talked his way into the job. When the assistant arts and entertainment editor also took off, he moved into that position and when the department editor was hospitalized, Robbins found himself reviewing, for a major city newspaper, the first opera and first symphony concert he’d ever attended. Hey, you can’t make this stuff up. Well, Robbins could but he didn’t. I think.
Tibetan Peach Pie, Tom Robbins, Ecco (May 27, 2014), paperback, 9 x 6 inches, 384 pages, ISBN 978-0062267405