Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life
By Tom Robbins
362 pages, $27.99
But Enough About You: Essays
By Christopher Buckley
Simon and Schuster
448 pages, $27.50
By Jeff Simon
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
Here’s a story from “Tibetan Peach Pie” that rather neatly encapsulates the offhand but utterly undeniable charms of the book:
It seems that in the 1950s Tom Robbins attended Washington and Lee University, “a private liberal arts college in Lexington, Virginia,” which, he informs us, was considered back then “The Princeton of the South, a sort of finishing school for Southern Gentlemen” (among those, at the time, who didn’t conceive of that very concept as oxymoronic.) Coats and ties were de rigeur.
“One student, however, stood out among others in terms of sartorial splendor. It wasn’t that his threads were more expensive, more finely tailored than those of fellow classmen but that they were chosen – and worn – with such panache, such dash. This dandy, who on warm days appeared in dazzling white suits with flowery pocket squares, was, among other things (he epitomized the ‘big man on campus’) sports editor of the semiweekly school newspaper for which I, a freshman, was a cub sports reporter.”
The paper was called Ring-tum Phi. Robbins – the future novelist and onetime antic hero of countercultural prose – admits he never learned why.
The sports editor’s name was T.K. Wolfe III or, as “he would be known to the English-speaking world” in “less than two decades,” Tom Wolfe.
Years later, at the end of Esquire Magazine’s “gala fiftieth anniversary dinner at the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York,” Robbins found himself “standing behind Wolfe at the coat-check counter.” The inevitable moment came and the younger schoolmate introduced his now-adult self to the elder who was once his editor and was now a high-flier in a different squadron of the same general business.
“Wolfe shook my hand heartily, then proceeded to tell me that whenever and wherever he spoke on college campuses, students would invariably ask if he knew Tom Robbins.”
Writer and anecdotal sous chef that he is, Robbins knows when a recipe could benefit from a little horseradish. “Any satisfaction I might have taken from this warm and ego-bolstering exchange was immediately chilled when I turned to find William F. Buckley, emperor penguin of the American right, sneering at me with the horror and revulsion he would have displayed had he come upon a bedbug lounging in his satin sheets, reserving particular odium for my ruffled pink shirt and my bow tie with colored sequins.”
Some small part of “Tibetan Peach Pie” is indeed written in the verbal equivalent of “a ruffled pink shirt” and “bow tie with colored sequins” but if I have to tell you how pleasurable a book can be when you just might happen to turn a page and come upon a description of William F. Buckley Jr. as the “emperor penguin of the American right,” then “Tibetan Peach Pie” is not for you.
If I don’t have to tell you, you’ll find Robbins’ memoir that refuses to call itself a memoir one of the solid, if minor, pleasures of summer reading season’s onset.
It is, like the essay omnibus “But Enough About You,” by the penguin’s son, Christopher Buckley, a book of enormously readable if often anachronistic prose, by an antic literary crowd pleaser for an unavoidably waning crowd. Robbins and Buckley are writers whose differently gaudy relationships with readers are definitely from another era but by no means lacking in delights in this one.
Robbins will be 82 in a couple of months – yes, 82. For a brief second there, in literary time, he seemed to be a lesser literary relative of Thomas Pynchon. That was when Pynchon had delivered his first masterpiece “V” and followed it up with his most readable book “The Crying of Lot 49.” Robbins’ first novel “Another Roadside Attraction” seemed, rather vaguely, to be swimming merrily in the same literary gene pool, though at the shallow end.
In short order, of course, all bets were off. Robbins’ smash literary hit “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” enticed a whole different readership altogether, and Pynchon’s massive novel “Gravity’s Rainbow,” published after a lengthy period of compositional gestation, announced conclusively to all in the business of literary assay that Pynchon’s ambitions were vastly greater than anyone previously suspected – and had little kinship in his own generation.
As an enormously entertaining functionary in the vanished world of countercultural prose, Robbins – the ex-Seattle Times art critic and irresistibly comic hippie fantasist– now seems a bit more condemned by unavoidable anachronism than is strictly necessary in what ought to be a more catholic (traditional sense) and all-embracing 21st century.
“Tibetan Peach Pie” is, he says, not a memoir even though it is; it’s just the result of the wild-hare novelist’s decision to get on paper the life stories he’s long been telling the women in his life – among whom are some wives who are jokingly dismissed in a way that is far from politically correct in the student classes who, long ago, used to provide the shock troops of his readership.
But, as with the once-popular works of Richard Brautigan, the old hero of what was once a literary counterculture remains a splendid entertainer and a winning sensibility in American prose. By all means, find a beach chair if you want – weather permitting.
If Buckley – the son of Robbins’ disapproving “emperor penguin” – isn’t quite the anachronism that Robbins’ is, it’s because, at 61, he’s 21 years younger. It’s also because his novel “Thank You for Smoking” was turned into a rather wonderful movie by Jason Reitman, one of our best current filmmakers and the fellow who also gave us “Juno” and “Up in the Air.”
This Buckley omnibus is his first essay collection since “Wry Martinis” in 1997. In the same way that Robbins, the avowed non-memoirist who has indeed written his memoirs, Buckley, who is ordinarily classed a “humorist,” has published a collection whose best pieces by far are decidedly not those by a brilliant fellow sometimes straining to be a “humorist.”
There’s no question that in, for instance, his attitudes toward booze and other commodities now rejected in excess by the “nanny state,” there is a great deal that is redolent of what might be called “the school of (Christopher) Hitchens” to which he long ago enrolled as an openly confessed Hitchens “pupil.” That means, of course, also a consort of Martin Amis, son of Kingsley, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and James Fenton.
Christopher, son of William F. Jr. is only an occasional delinquent runaway from the nanny state, not a penguin on the march against it as was his father. Any man who was such a friend of Hitchens – and a self-declared Obama voter no less – is not to be understood from his old man’s politics.
His collection is wildly readable, even if some of the “humor” is so effortful that it’s hollow. When it is, you can always take pleasure in his essays about Hitchens or how his novel “Thank You For Smoking” survived years of anesthetizing “development” by Mel Gibson (“if we had actually become friends, I might have been able to stop him getting into the car that night and getting arrested for driving while anti-Semitic”) and his father’s old nemesis Gore Vidal, who, we learn here, made his old man endlessly happy once when he replied to “the American Academy of arts and Letters on being offered membership: ‘Thanks, but I already have Diner’s Club.’”
An anachronistic wisecrack to be sure, with its references from another era entirely. But a good one nevertheless.
A very readable book too.
Jeff Simon is the News’ Arts and Books Editor.