Off the Shelf

"Still Life With Woodpecker"

By Marcus Pan

Still Life With Woodpecker"You have to read this," he said as he stuffed a larger-than-pocket sized soft-cover volume into my hands. On the cover was an old-style pencil drawing of a woodpecker, its red tuft of head feathers sloped back in an aviary pompadour and an unstruck match held in its beak. In its feet is a stick of dynamite and it flies low over a desert view bespeckled with palm trees and pyramids. "You'll enjoy this, trust me." he said urgently. "His writing reminds me of yours." Now, at the point, I was coaxed into opening "Still Life With Woodpecker" regardless of the fact that I have never heard of Tom Robbins or any of his books before…it's not every day I'm compared favorably with a successful writer. So that I did.

The biggest wondering I was fraught with was whether or not I could handle another zany book. I had just finished four of Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's series one after the other and was quite loop-minded following the ludicrosity and at-many-times hilarity that abounded in those. I was ready to get serious with "Carrion Comfort," a horror novel that I hoped would kick my mind back into a more serious mode. I admit I did read "The Night Church" in between, but if you read my Off the Shelf review of that one you'd know that didn't count. Sometimes when you've read nothing but zany books you start to see things in a weird way…especially if you've been reading nothing but this type of writing for months. And I have that problem enough on most days without having to compound it with continuous reading exercises to push it further ahead. Suddenly the world seems more like a wobbling bubble about to pop rather than a firmament you can count on and you reach in your pocket for that stick of dynamite or that metallic thumb in hopes to help it along before realizing it was just fiction. Or was it? I'll let that idea lie as this is supposed to be about a book and not my own musings. So on with it.

Grudgingly, I accepted the demand that I read "Still Life With Woodpecker" before I go any further with whatever else I was perusing at the time. It took me a bit longer than most because, as I said, I was already steeped in farcical worlds. But I trudged along nonetheless and eventually made it to the end where Robbins' typewriter pissed him off for the last time and he resorted to completing the last few pages of his book in longhand. The best way I can describe the upper strata of Still Life is to say it is a "surrealistic comedy." True 'nuff, but to delve a bit deeper into the strata we find it is a romantic book, which is strange for me because the last thing I need is empty romance novels. Fortunately there were no pirate ships or fights to the death, though there was an Argonian transport vessel. But that's irrelevant at this point.

Poor Leigh-Cheri, a princess in exile from her home country by order of the CIA to live in a blackberry brambled house tucked away in Puget Sound, "a box with a peaked roof" as it is typically described, waiting for Prince Charming as is usual with princess types these days. Her father, Max, was king at one point in his time but following a small revolution found himself stuffed into the peaked box with his over-abundant wife and a ticker that tonked like a truck. After kingship he tried gambling for a while, but found that his metallic heart valve caused a bit of problem with poker, his favorite game; "When I draw a good hand, I sound like a Tupperware party." Tilli, the over-abundance I speak of, learned most of her English speaking from American television and likewise peppered her attempt at conversation with commercial slogans that have an absurd accuracy that most would be far-fetched to achieve. She also had a grandiose appreciation for opera, and still to this day searches for the musical score to "Fellatio." Leigh-Cheri is usually tended to by old Gulietta, who has been with the family for years and still had an appealing cocaine habit to discover yet. Her current habit was frogs…big green ones.

Leigh-Cheri's questioning of Prince Charming was the only thing that adhered her to the stereotypical twentieth century princess…or any princess for that matter. She was far from pure, far from royal excepting her physical lineage and otherwise skipped about from jock to jock (the football type) with merriment. Even when the jock's jocks weren't available she found solace in such mundane items as candlesticks…but I digress.

Following her sudden loss of cheerleading status due to a rather graphically performed miscarriage at a homecoming game, Leigh-Cheri cloistered herself in the attic of the Puget Sound peak-box and teetered away her princess hours with candlesticks and conversations with the moon. Until one day she read of the Care Festival…and do-gooderness took hold of her mind and sent her off; Gulietta, frog and all; to Hawaii to deal with rude UFO drivers and a level of caring rudeness that usually require homicidal tendencies to enjoy otherwise. And that's when the bomb went off, leveling the hotel and sending Argonian UFO persons running amok and wondering if this was a totalitarian plot to silence their eccentricities. And the bomber? The book's namesake, "The Woodpecker" himself, who regardless of his rather unbecoming habit of blowing up buildings with explosives made out of such everyday fare as playing cards or Fruit Loops, turns out to be Prince Charming. Go figure.

Now before we go any further with the plot, I have to make a few things clear. Some of my representations of Still Life might seem rather graphic. Let's take the candlestick use. Sure, Leigh-Cheri is anything BUT virginal…but this is portrayed in anything BUT erotic ways. There is always a touch of comedic style, a bit of hilarious tendencies and it is rather quickly done and not dwelled upon. You can always tell just where the succulent snake staff is slithering…but assuming you have some sense of humor it's done with comedic flair and style and most definitely not something I consider pornographic. Not G-rated, no, but most definitely not erotica. Although I have found myself laughing at the cheezy plots in porno movies these days, but again I digress. You still should get the point.

Another thing worth discussing is the Argonians from, you guessed it, the planet Argon. Robbins uses these bright characters well. They are not an intrinsic part of the plot, nor are they completely unimportant either. They are there to represent to us in clear detail that everyone has different beliefs. A lot of those beliefs seem to be, at least to you and I, completely ludicrous. But a few well-placed unexplainable events in the vision of Leigh-Cheri and The Woodpecker make you wonder just enough…wonder about who's right. Are we right to think they're crazy? Or do they have the correct idea, the TRUTH of the matter, after all? It's enough to make you think …maybe we're the ones with the fucked up beliefs. But what I mean to stress is that you won't see anyone whipping out automatic hitching thumbs in this story, everyone stays comfortably Earthbound, but there are a few interesting events to make you wonder long after you've finished the novel.

Tom Robbins is a surrealist in every sense of the word. From beginning to end of Still Life you are cordially pummeled by analogies that will strain your mind and others that will send it wandering to the proverbial heavens. I enjoyed Robbins' analogous writing style because I tend to use them fairly often myself, working to explain away things that I see utilizing methods and means that most just wouldn't be able to think of, yet makes good enough sense if you give it enough of your hard-earned electro-chemical neuro-activity. In fact, this is what Kim referred to when he suggested the similarity of my writing style to that of Robbins' when he first pressed the volume into my hands.

At the same time, buzzing analogies about like epileptic bees in a garden, he winds throughout them a philosophy and a number of points that he's been trying to get across since he first fired up his Remington SL3 typewriter and loaded in the first sheet. In the novel you'll ponder the importance of pyramids, the lifestyle of a pack of Camels and the ramblings of the outlaw. How things that you recognize immediately suddenly show up in places where you knew they were, but just didn't recognize the connection until you were smacked in the head with a mallet and pointed to. You'll learn the intimacy of lunar landscape from afar as well as study and, if you're lucky, you'll learn how to make love stay. None of this is going to make sense to you. It's the surrealism, stupid! And surrealism is something that isn't going to just fall into place. It kind of oozes into place like slime, bubbling together until it, like the rest of the world, is about to pop. Robbins has a unique way of blending all this philosophic bantering and slimy analogies into a novel that, by the end, makes a lot more sense than you'd think. Even if it doesn't make sense.

Somewhere in Seattle there's a guy named Tom. He's still sitting there and, according to reports, is still trying to figure out what a British critic meant when he said, "Tom Robbins writes like Dolly Parton looks." Most people would excuse this and move on. But Tom realizes…everything is part of it.

"Still Life With Woodpecker" by Tom Robbins
Published by Bantam Books - © 1980
ISBN# 0-553-34897-3

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