I first read Even Cowgirls Get The Blues by Tom Robbins when I was sixteen. It was passed on to me by a friend I admired. It took only a few pages for Robbins to have me charmed, thinking that somehow in reading the book, I’d been invited into a club of people who really knew what we were doing. On this planet, I mean. In this human race. What’s more? I laughed and laughed, often at things that the prude adults in my life wouldn’t admit to even knowing about. I want to look at Robbins here particularly as a humorist. I admire certain humorist writers greatly: Kurt Vonnegut, Tom Robbins, and Christopher Moore particularly. So, I posed this question: Just what is it about Robbins style that is so funny? Four things seem worth mentioning here: authorial presence, listing, range of diction, and seemingly random information or comparisons.
“You author has found love to be the full trip…” (79). “If he has confused you, the author apologizes…” (124). These are just two examples of the authorial intrusions throughout Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. And sometimes, he just pops in with some musing or information to shake us up. Robbins is known for these kinds of intrusions in his other novels as well. In Even Cowgirls Get the Blues it is even more fitting because in the end the author is in fact a character participating in the happily ever after of the story. It doesn’t seem so random to bring him since he has been telling us the story and making us laugh all along the way. The intrusions of the author add a light-hearted quality to the story. This author is who we meet first in the “Single Cell Preface” and we are cued in right away that he will not necessarily be serious and this invites us to laugh along as he says to the first amoeba, “wherever it may be, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues would like to say happy birthday. Happy birthday to you.” Literally, a life celebration, a playful, quirky affirmation of even—gasp–the crude, the taboo. And, we are invited to join in. His presence consistently reminds us that this book is meant to be playful.
Robbins varies his sentence structure as any masterful writer will do. He knows the power of the carefully placed concise sentence: “The Chink is right; life is essentially playful” (100). Oh, but he loves the list. Particularly the surprise at the end of an already quirky list. It sends us over the top with him, is part of the celebration we are participating in, “South Richmond was neighborhood of mouse holes, lace curtains, Sears catalogs, measles epidemics, baloney sandwiches—and men who knew more about the carburetor than they knew about the clitoris” (19). He frequently ends his lists with a word such as clitoris, an attention grabber, an assertion of freedom.
His free-wheeling, life-loving, romping tone is further enhanced by his unpredictable and shifting diction. Sometimes scholarly, sometimes crude, Robbins is in love with the delicious word. He moves from “hanky-panky” to “sedentary bivalve” without blinking. In fact it’s not just words that he treats as if all bets are off, but punctuation too. And this works in a novel in which all bets are in fact off, anything can happen and playfulness is the message.
Robbins is known for his metaphors. Even Cowgirls is no exception: “the sky was as tattered as a gypsy’s pajamas” (327), “a typewriter of birds banging out sonnets in the dogwood buds” (36), or “used the vaginal wrench to slowly, gently turn her husband’s objections down to a mere trickle” (26). He’s always popping them off and beginning chapters with seemingly random statements like “In the flippers of dolphins there are five skeletal fingers” (223), which he proceeds to tie it into the narrative in a kind of comparison.
Robbins personifies everything. He compares like there are no rules, no lines between things. It is this complete abandon that makes the writing work. He doesn’t just do one or two things that are out of the ordinary. The entire novel is extraordinary and unconventional. However, all of this is done with an affection for syntax, words, and punctuation. He uses them with wild abandon, but in creative, interesting, and correct ways. We know from the get-go that his purpose is to amuse and he follows through on that promise all the way to the end.
I think my novel Fair Days is in some ways an homage to writers like Robbins and Moore, though muted, more subtle. When I go back to it, maybe having spent some time thinking about this will serve to improve the writing that’s there. I would think so, but, who knows? Most everything else I’ve written is darker, more serious. But, man, do I love me some Robbins.