Tom Robbins has been churning out picaresque novels for 30 years now, and it's hard to argue with success. His trademark mixture of dark comedy, fantasy, and paranoia has made him a fixture in dormitories across the country. But his claustrophobic vision of contemporary America has, unfortunately, made him more relevant than ever.
With Villa Incognito, Robbins ratchets up the claustrophobia considerably by situating things in the middle of the Laotian jungle, where three U.S. airmen have been hanging out since jumping out of their B-52 in 1973. The intellectually inclined Foley, Stubblefield, and Dickie find the Laotian village preferable to the homeland and decide to remain MIA long after the Vietnam War ends.
Stubblefield and Foley set up camp in an abandoned French Colonial house in the middle of the jungle, where they discuss religion, morality, and philosophy while supporting themselves through the opium trade. That gives Robbins plenty of time for his trademark digressions on spirituality, time, God, and anything else he feels is relevant to the existential predicament of the modern man. And thus: "In this world that God (or Mother Nature) created, it's always hazard and novelty . . . which assert themselves, thereby rendering notions of fixity absurd. . . . The person who cannot welcome ambiguity cannot welcome God."
Put that in your pipe and smoke it. In this removed zone where people have distanced themselves from their own identities, Robbins is able to create a sort of endless symposium on his favorite topics. One gets the feeling that if Villa Incognito were radically compressed, it might turn into a little red book of metaphysical observations.
Back to the story, a parallel plot involves Tanuki, a badger with huge testicles that falls from the sky, transforms into a human being at will, and fathers a young woman with badger genes. Finally, the plot brings us into the 21st century, where Foley is caught red-handed trafficking heroin into Thailand, and Tanuki's half-human, half-badger daughter is performing in a traveling circus in Oregon. Meanwhile, Sept. 11 is fast approaching.
The plot is pure chaos, but Villa Incognito is a page-turner, if only because you're driven to find out how Robbins is going to squeeze philosophy, religion, fantasy, Vietnam, and 9/11 into 240-odd pages. Because this book is considerably shorter than most of his others, the transitions are stark and somewhat difficult to accept. But as Robbins hints, that may have more to do with contemporary America than most of us are willing to admit.