Monday, September 30, 2013
Wild Ducks Flying Backward - Tom Robbins
2005; 255 pages. New Author? : No. Full Title : Wild Ducks Flying Backward, The Short Writings of Tom Robbins. Genre : Selected Writings. Overall Rating : 9*/10.
What happens when you take the Novel out of a Novelist? Wild Ducks Flying Backward examines Tom Robbins in that light via a slew of short-but-diverse pieces he’s written over the course of nearly 40 years (1967-2005) for a variety of magazines, newspapers, etc.
What you get is a different shade of Robbins. It’s more vivid, especially when’s he’s hyping the local (Seattle area) culture; and more complex when he’s reviewing a celebrity. It’s also brighter when he’s tossing a poem at you; and lighter when he’s composing a song or a ditty for his young son.
What’s To Like...
The writings aren’t in chronological order; they’re grouped into the following sections :
Travel Articles (pg. 7)
Tributes (pg. 55)
Stories, Poems, and Lyrics (pg. 125)
Musings and Critiques (pg. 175)
Responses (pg. 225)
There’s a handy Table of Contents, so you can easily locate a personal favorite. Tom Robbins’ travels, tastes, opinions, and creations cover a broad spectrum. If you run into a topic that doesn’t tickle your fancy, be of good cheer – the next article will be on something completely different.
FWIW, my favorite sections were the “Poems” and the “Responses”. But this is like picking your favorite M&M color – all the sections were tasty. My favorite articles were The Doors (55); Leonard Cohen (77); Write About One of your Favorite Things (225); Till Lunch Do Us Part (188); and My Heart is not a Poodle (153). He even includes three great pieces of Haiku, a verse form that is easy to do, but almost impossible to do well.
But it is Tom Robbins’ fabulous writing style and masterful vocabulary that will have you gasping in awe. Without a storyline to rein things in, he can let his literary artistry flow. The subject may bore you; the wordplay wizardry will not. Every page dazzles.
Kewlest New Word...
Vagitus (n.) : the crying of a newborn baby.
Few who ever heard it forget her voice- which sounds as if it’s been strained through Bacall and Bogey’s honeymoon sheets and then hosed down with plum brandy. Or her laugh – which sounds as if it’s being squeezed out of a kangaroo bladder by a musical aborigine. (pg. 119)
To pragmatists, the letter Z is nothing more than a phonetically symbolic glyph, a minor sign easily learned, readily assimilated, and occasionally deployed in the course of a literate life. To cynics, Z is just an S with a stick up its butt.
Well, true enough, any word worth repeating is greater than the sum of its parts; and the particular word-part Z – angular, whereas S is curvaceous – can, from a certain perspective, appear anally wired (although Z is far too sophisticated to throw up its arms like Y and act as if it had just been goosed). (pg. 225)
“The shore of Puget Sound is where electric guitars cut their teeth and old haiku go to die.” (pg. 235)
There were some slow spots. The tributes on people I know were fascinating, but when it was someone I was unfamiliar with, I lost interest. Ditto for some of the Seattle artist blurbs – the critiques are detailed, but one gets the feeling that there were pictures of the artists' works to go along with the original articles. In fairness, my curiosity was piqued enough to google-image said artists. I found Leo Kenney to be fantastic; Morris Louis to be so-so.
There also were times – especially in the literary critiques – when Robbins’ writing just went Whoosh! right over my head. But I still enjoyed the wordsmanship, and Robbins can hardly be faulted for not dumbing down his literary intricacies to my level.
So here’s an exercise to try. Select a letter of the alphabet, and write a 2-page essay on it. When you’re done, compare it to Tom Robbins’ ode to the letter Z, the beginning of which is given in the second excerpt, above.
See what I mean about him being a wordmeister sans pareil?
All in all, Wild Ducks Flying Backward demonstrates that Tom Robbins can pen a stellar piece in just about any writing field he chooses. 9 Stars. Add a half-star if you live in the Seattle area; subtract one star if what you really read Tom Robbins for is his crazy storytelling.