Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins
When my brother gave me this book for Christmas, he told me to “drink in the writing.” Or something to that effect. Whatever it was, he heaped praise on Robbins’ use of language. Several people in my family had read this, or some other Tom Robbins book, and they all enthusiastically agreed that reading him was a pleasure unto itself, above and beyond the enjoyment one gets from reading the actual story. I was promised an actual Reading Experience, and that promise was fulfilled in spades.
Reading Robbins is like sitting through a storm. His words flow down the page like the acid dreams of a long-reformed hippie. They dance and spin, curling into strange and exotic shapes that you can’t quite take in on the first read, so you look at the page again, convinced that there must have been something there that you missed. You find yourself at the end of a section, convinced that you’ve read it, but not entirely sure what you’ve read. Or you go back and read it again just because reading it the first time was just such fun.Most modern writers do their best to keep you involved in the story, to keep the writing from drawing attention to itself. Much in the same way that many filmmakers try to keep you from thinking, “Oh, I’m looking through a camera,” so do writers try to keep you from thinking about the words – their lens through which they transmit their message and images. Robbins completely eschews this principle – not only does he make sure you notice his words, he goes out of the way to make the words themselves more interesting than the story.
This is not to say that the story isn’t interesting, of course. It is a romance, albeit a strange and brambly one. A young princess, the only child of an exiled king and queen, has vowed to devote her life to the betterment of the Earth, to use her royal station to help the world and to absolutely never fall in love – or even have sex – again. For very good reasons, of course. Nothing like having a miscarriage while cheerleading for your college football team to dampen your reproductive urges. This plan works up until she gets to a ecology conference in Maui, where she meets the man of her nightmares – a notorious terrorist who is nicknamed the Woodpecker.
The Woodpecker (his real name is Bernard) is a self-professed outlaw, a man who takes joy in subverting order, thumbing his nose at authority and living with a complete disregard for legal niceties such as not blowing things up. He’s been in prison and escaped, and has only a short time until the statute of limitations finally runs out. This doesn’t stop Bernie from bringing dynamite with him to Maui, and under the influence of alcohol and lust and rage, he tips his hand too soon. The only thing standing between him and prison is the beautiful red-headed princess – Leigh-Cherie – who hates him at first sight and swears that there is absolutely nothing about him that she finds redeeming.We all know where that kind of thinking leads.
They fall in love, of course, a whirlwind outlaw romance that is only put to rest when Bernie finally lands back in prison. As a show of solitude to her lover, Leigh-Cherie locks herself in her room, turning it into a cell to mirror that of her beloved, and swears not to leave it until he leaves his. The only things in the room are a bed, a chamber pot, and a pack of Camel cigarettes.
That’s where things start to get weird.
The nice thing about this book is that you don’t really have to ponder what the themes were – Robbins points them out quite clearly by the end of the book, so if you didn’t get it the first time, you’ll be able to get it the next time ’round. It’s a story about love, of course, and the irrational, weird turns it can take. It’s about history, about the great, never-ending “why” that drives us from one act to the next. And, interestingly enough, it’s about our relationship with the physical world, from the greatest of the Egyptian pyramids to the most mundane pack of Camels.
During her self-inflicted time in solitary, Leigh-Cherie constructs a vast universe inside the label of her cigarettes (which she never actually smokes) and it leads her to truths and realizations that would confound the greatest philosopher or the most devoted mystic. By contemplating the mundane, she finds the key to the universe.
Speaking of relating to objects, the story itself is a kind of romance between Robbins and his typewriter – a Remington SL3 – which doesn’t, insofar as I have been able to tell, exist. Theirs is a tumultuous love. It begins with a tentative love, a hope that the machine is The One for this book. It passes through admiration and infatuation, only to end with rejection as Robbins finishes the book in longhand.As Robbins relates to his Remington, and Leigh-Cherie to her pack of Camels, so do we have relationships with objects. We become familiar with our possessions, imbuing them with character and personality. Not only that, but once we give consideration to the history of that object – its design and manufacturing, where the idea and the materials came from – we find that we can read the history of the universe in something as simple as a paper clip.
It’s a weird and wonderful book. The characters are vibrant and real, in a kind of hyper-real way. It’s funny and bright, changing pace and rhythm from page to page and really is a delight to sit and read. Even more fun to read aloud, actually, so if you have a chance to do that, jump and take it.
“Plato did claim that the unexamined life is not worth living. Oedipus Rex was not so sure.”
– Tom Robbins, Still Life with Woodpecker