TIBETAN PEACH PIE: A True Account of an Imaginative Life, by Tom Robbins. Ecco, 362 pp., $27.99.
If you are a baby boomer who can remember when and where you first read Tom Robbins' breakout novels ("Another Roadside Attraction," "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues," "Still Life With Woodpecker"), you might approach a Robbins memoir with subliminal dread. Can the bard of your youth still touch your mind and heart? Can Robbins, a man who believes in magic, still cast a spell? Can he still call forth his singular mix of insight, philosophy and kaleidoscopic imagination? Having read "Tibetan Peach Pie," I can report -- yes, yes and yes.
"Tibetan Peach Pie" is not really a memoir. Rather, it's a chain of interlinked stories about a long and very eventful life. Robbins was born in 1932 in the North Carolina hill country. It's a minor miracle that his strait-laced parents accepted the idiosyncrasies of a child whose imaginative thermostat was "set permanently on high." "Allowed to roam freely in both the streets and the woods, I observed and interacted not only with the wonders of nature but with an assortment of ... bib-overalled raconteurs, many of whom spun stories as effortlessly and expertly as they spit tobacco juice," Robbins writes. He made up stories and talked to himself, walking the backyard in circles drumming a rhythm with a "talking stick."
His hazy, lazy, charmed life ended when he was sent to military school, standard Southern strategy for boys who don't fit into the public-school system. The regimen of military school could have stifled him, but he won a string of writing awards. After dropping out of college and a stint in the Air Force, Robbins sashayed his way through a couple of newspaper jobs, when a Doubleday editor contacted him about writing a book about art. Instead, he sold his idea for a novel guaranteed to hit the sweet spot of the counterculture -- the story of the owners of a Skagit County flea circus who come into possession of the mummified body of Jesus Christ (1971's "Another Roadside Attraction").
Eventually, "Tibetan Peach Pie" loses narrative steam. Robbins becomes successful, and more circumspect. The latter chapters are travel pieces or vignettes that don't cohere with the rest of book.
But it's a gift to his fans, and it may earn him some new and younger readers. "Tibetan Peach Pie" is the story of a man who had the sense to follow where his imagination led -- "my wild card, my skeleton key, my servant, my master," he writes. How lucky that we got to tag along for the ride.