Monday, October 30, 2006

Even Cowgirls Get The Blues - Tom Robbins

This is going to be a hard book to describe. The basic story is strange but straightforward - Cissy Hankshaw is born with oversize thumbs, which inspires her to take up hitchhiking; after many years of this, she marries a frail New York aesthete, but is unable to settle down; on a photo-shoot in the Dakotas, she finds herself at the Rubber Rose Ranch, a health & beauty spa in the process of being overrun by cowgirls, and falls in love with both a young cowgirl and an old Japanese hermit; then a flock of endangered whooping cranes takes up residence near the ranch... but reducing this book to the mere plot details is like describing the Grand Canyon as a big ditch. The main point of this book is not the story but the style.

New York City. June 21, 1972. Eight-thirty in the evening, according to the position of two mechanical hands on an arbitrary dial. Mars is in the house of Virgo, Jupiter is in the House of Values and Venus is in the House of Pies. The weather: hot hokey puppy poopie with billows of industrial paranoia at 600 feet. Manhattan smells like the litter box for the Kitty of the World. It has twisted its body into the dog-shit asana. Close by but far away, in a world beyond odors, ghosts of the original inhabitants are laughing their feathers off, remembering how they'd stuck the white devils with this doomed piece of real estate for some very chic beads and a box of Dutch Masters. The Big Apple, polished with Rockefeller spit and wiped on the tight pants of a multitude of Puerto Ricans, is ready for the chomps and nibbles of Friday-nighters from everywhere. Junkies are stirring in their warrens, pizzas are primping in their ovens, Wall Street is resting its bloody butthole and the Statue of Liberty wears a frown that won't quit. As City College professors, disgruntled over martinis, talk about dropping out and farming rhubarb in Oregon, neon signs all over town rejoice because it's the shortest night of the year. Headline on the front page of the New York Daily News: THE CHINK SUMS IT UP, SAYS LIFE IS HARD IF YOU THINK IT'S HARD. New York City. In progress. Not a cowgirl in sight.

Hanging from the bones of the story are all kinds of weird and wonderful things. The brain argues with the thumb over who is more responsible for the evils of civilisation. Sentences introduce themselves and announce how proud they are to be part of the Only Cowgirls Get The Blues team. The author enters the story, both as the psychiatrist Dr Robbins and as the omniscient Voice of the Author, who calls out warnings to mice when a character throws a stone off a cliff. There's poetry and philosophy and some barbed snipes at the government. There are smiles and more than a few laughs. And, um, there are vaginas.

Many men believe that if they had boobs, they'd do nothing but play with them all day; Robbins seems to be taking a similar view here of the naughtier bits. The prurient references to all things vaginal are inescapable, though only sporadically pornographic - Cissy advertises douche products; her employer is terrified of the smell; the Rubber Rose ranch is (initially) dedicated to matters of intimate hygiene. Tom Robbins in real life may well be quite well-adjusted on the subject, but you'd never guess it from this book. Was it really daring and shocking in the seventies? Possibly, but I found it more of an irritation, like trying to enjoy a concert in a hall full of mosquitoes.

The constant vagina references were probably the book's biggest drawback; this was closely followed by the device of Cissy's huge thumbs, which never really had me convinced. Other than that, though, it was a fine read in an interesting style. The relentless whimsy does become slightly wearing at times, but there are enough changes of pace and switching of setting to ensure that the boring bits never last for long. I've heard the film's rubbish, but the book's certainly worth a read.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

If yuou could spell "Sissy" we might have higher regard for this review. But when you miss the name of the protagonist, we wonder...

7:40 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I chose not to get hung up on something as irrelevant as the spelling of a character's name.

5:35 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is the most boring book I have ever read and I read Capital in the 21st Century. I couldn't do it. Gave up around page 160. I NEVER give up on books. I am so annoyed I may never read Robbins again. Clearly I should have saved Another Roadside Attraction for last because he is one of those authors who peaked on his first book. Just garbage.

3:26 pm  

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