Wild Ducks Flying Backward
For Tom Robbins fans—and this collection would interest few others—the most revealing piece in Wild Ducks Flying Backward is a 1967 review of a live Doors show that Robbins wrote for a Seattle underground newspaper. There lying embryonically are both the skills that would bring him fame and the limits that mire him today. The lad was clearly strong on crafty wordplay and insightful homage to all the hip deities, but woefully weak in descriptive detail and critical balance. The tarot couldn’t have nailed his future better.
These days, Robbins borders on irrelevance. He made his name in the late ’70s by gently introducing alternative cultures to a generation or two of literary thrill seekers, back before alternative cultures could present themselves via the web. Perhaps even more than Jack Kerouac, Robbins rendered tasty concepts such as Zen Buddhism, hedonistic adventuring, and self-liberation. These days, though, there’s less mainstream for Robbins to swim against. His giddily overripe mien has been appropriated by advertising copy, and he has been slow to move ahead, with each novel a bit paler than the last, Villa Incognito a wraith of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.
As Robbins’ first collection of magazine pieces and other unpublished or obscure writings, Wild Ducks Flying Backward disrupts that novelistic death march. There’s plenty of choice Robbins moments scattered about, but in unusual surroundings. A 1988 Esquire piece “Canyon of the Vaginas” has Robbins journeying to a remote canyon in Nevada that does indeed resemble a giant female vulva. That this feminist pussy hound radiated at length about the “inner intensity of feminine sexuality” in that old pussy-hound mag is inspired. We get unpublished poems, which are pretty playful. We get some early, and surprisingly somber, art critiques. Also uncharacteristically subdued is a 1988 appreciation of cultural autodidact Joseph Campbell, penned for Seattle Weekly. Robbins is as careful with his words about his hero as a repentant criminal before a parole board. “[A] myth is something that never happened but is always happening” is one of his best observations published anywhere.
There’s plenty of other primo bits in Wild Ducks, and plenty of schlock, too (a hungry Robbins could wax rhapsodic about a candy machine). But by decocting the humor, inventiveness, and verity from the narrative stronghold Robbins usually welds over his novels, Wild Ducks Flying Backward opens up all sorts of new possibilities about what could appear between the covers of a Tom Robbins book. Let’s see if it also reawakens that old cat’s thirst for a few more adventures.