Suspicion surrounds Tom Robbins. Is he serious, or is he merely having us on? Is he a literary artist, urging the reader into disjointed worlds wherein to ponder elementals, or is he merrily masturbating between the covers and laughing all the way to the bank?
Or is it instead all four? And does it even matter?
Thanks to the folks at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva, Robbins fans in this area will have a chance to press the authorial flesh this week. The publisher of his latest novel, Villa Incognito (Bantam Books, 2003), held a booksellers' display contest, and City Lights nabbed the prize: Robbins-for-a-night as part of his current tour -- flogging the just-out paperback edition. It's to be the only WNC touchdown for the Blowing Rock native.
And let this be said: Robbins may have flown tush over teacup into the literary stratosphere with a succession of sporadically acclaimed and not infrequently best-selling books, but he hasn't forgotten his roots. As he explains in Incognito: "All Carolina folk are crazy for mayonnaise, mayonnaise is as ambrosia to them, the food of their tarheeled gods. Mayonnaise comforts them, causes the vowels to slide more musically along their slow tongues, appeasing their grease-conditioned taste buds while transporting those buds to a plane higher than lard could ever hope to fly."
Isn't it so? Do we not gloriously wallow in "this inanimate seductress, this goopy glorymonger, this alchemist in a jar"? Or is Chairman Bob misreading us when he proffers the never-ending discount on lipidic Laura Lynn at the end of aisle three?
Robbins has authored nine weirdly contorted, squishily sexy romps -- from Another Roadside Attraction (1971) to Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1976) to my favorites, Still Life With Woodpecker (1980) and Jitterbug Perfume (1984). A long dry spell gave way to the vaguely disappointing Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates (2000) and the equally recherche current title. Not considered a terribly prolific writer, Robbins remarked in a 2000 interview with January Magazine: "I probably spend as much time on one sentence as John Grisham spends on five chapters."
In that same interview, he limned his muse thus: "What I try to do, among other things, is to mix fantasy and spirituality, sexuality, humor and poetry in combinations that have never quite been seen before in literature."
Perhaps what pales for longtime readers is that we have seen it before, in Robbins' own work. Perhaps, also, this explains why his core audience remains post-adolescent, a demographic for whom much is new. Nor is this a damning critique -- someone needs to be the can opener for young, impressionable brains. But dashed hopes are hard on the heart, and Prozac is no substitute for the wish that Robbins' rabbit-hole romping would carry us past his leering Jabberwocks into Canaan or Sybaris.
The City Lights event bodes to be Sylva's Bele Chere. Streets closed, boisterous crowds, live music (the Itinerant Locals, a tuba/accordion duo from Hot Springs, Ark., and Ian Moore and the Rib Tips). But no word yet on funnel cakes or lizards-on-sticks.
The first 200 book buyers will get preferential treatment in the conga-line to the signing table, with numbered tickets dispensed meat-department fashion.
Witness the author, Himself, in paper cap and white apron, smeared with ox blood and chicken grease, sly thumb on the scale, his helpful but world-weary and mayonnaise-lubricated voice calling out, "127? 127?" while running his curious fingers over breasts and thighs and hearts.
"Meet me in Cognito, baby. Pla-bonga. Pla-bong."
Tom Robbins will sign copies of Villa Incognito at 6 p.m. Saturday, June 26 at City Lights Bookstore (3 East Jackson St., Sylva; 828/586-9499). He may also sing, gesticulate and carry on.