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July 18, 2010

Rereading Still Life With Woodpecker by Tom Robbins

I’ll start with the fact that makes me want to die the least (honestly): I used to claim that all the wonderment of literature in general was contained within this one book, and if it was the only book left on earth, all the best things about literature would still remain. I am very glad I never was made to prove this.

And then that I used to have a framed pack of Camel cigarettes hanging on my wall. I believed that it contained all the secrets of the universe, and would inspire me to be the kind of person I wanted to be.

That my copy of this book bears a heartfelt message from a boy who says he loves me. Which is really sweet, unless you know that I encountered him in an internet chatroom one day when I was very bored in 1999, and that we never met. (Though we did used to have discussions about how to make love stay, both agreeing ardently that when the mystery of the connection goes, love goes. However, we never did address how exactly the mystery of connection applies to two people who’ve never met.)

I think I’m less embarrassed about all that, however, than I am about the numerous lines throughout the text that I underlined in purple ink, in particular, “Me? I stand for uncertainty, insecurity, surprise, disorder, unlawfulness, bad taste, fun and things that go boom in the night.” Seriously, why did that speak to me? Because I only ever underlined things in purple ink if they resonated with my deepest being, but no one has ever stood for those things less than I do. Except bad taste. I think maybe it was aspirational…

So there are many ways to begin explaining just how much rereading Still Life With Woodpecker was an exercise in embarrassment. (And I reread this as part of Mark Sampson’s Retro Reading Challenge, I’ll have you know, of which embarrassment was sort of the point, but still, this must be unprecedented) I will explain that when I encountered this book, I was twenty years old and very bored, and that I was just contemplating turning my world upside down for the very first time. (The other line I fervently underlined during this period was from Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia [which I still love] which is: “This is the best time possible to be alive. When everything you know is wrong”).

Still Life… is the story of Leigh-Cheri, an exiled princess/all-American girl (like Anne Hathaway, but with more of a tendency toward unwanted pregnancies) who falls in love with a terrorist (and this was back when terrorism was still homey, domestic and romantic). Bernard is an “outlaw”, outside the law in every sense, except that he gets thrown back in jail, the couple drifts apart, her Arab fiance builds her a pyramid, the couple is reunited, and owe everything to a stick of dynamite. Bernard teaches Leigh-Cheri how to really be free, that love is crazy barking at the moon, that the moon is everything (including birth control), that sometimes you’ve got to throw caution to the wind, and blow a bunch of shit up.

When I read this book the first time, it gave me license to imagine I could live the kind of life I’d imagined. It made me feel more confident about going boldly forth, and making mistakes, and blowing shit up, and breaking the rules, and though I never did any of these things terribly prolifically (apart from the second), I am glad I learned these lessons when I was twenty years old. My life could possibly have been different otherwise, but I am not so sure I owe it as much to the Camel pack as I thought I did.

Rereading this book at 31, I see how far I’ve come, and how my literary judgement has sharpened, because the book is terrible. My political judgement has sharpened also– the Woodpecker is an anti-feminist, libertarian, but I would have noticed neither of these details then. Robbins’ prose is an orgy of play, but his language means nothing beyond its frippery, and it’s not even that funny– the only time I laughed out loud was when somebody sat on a chihuahua. I was bored reading most of it, and so bored out of my head by the end that I was only skimming. The sex was awful and gross, and not remotely sexy. The vagina euphemisms were totally disgusting, and I’m not sure why that didn’t put me off first time through.

I’m glad I reread it though– there were sparks of how brilliant I used to think it was. I don’t know if I’d ever read anything that interesting before, and it might have liberated me as a reader in the same way it did in a more general sense. And I wasn’t wholly cynical about its message. Even now, the idea of having CHOICE guide one’s life is very important to me: “To refuse to passively accept what we’ve been handed by nature or society, but to choose for ourselves. CHOICE. That’s the difference between emptiness and substance, between a life actually lived and a wimpy shadow cast on an office wall.” Rock on Tom!

Kind of inspiring, but not quite worth the 252 pages it took to get there.

15 thoughts on “Rereading Still Life With Woodpecker by Tom Robbins”

  1. Carrie says:

    This is an awesome blog entry. Though I read Still Life with Woodpecker, I think it was Even Cowgirls Get the Blues that did it for me (age 18; a time of deep ennui). I couldn’t read either now. You’d have to pin my eyelids open. You are a brave woman.

  2. Britt says:

    Yesterday I re-watched The Beach starring the hunky 20-something Leo. All it did was make me glad I’m not 20 anymore, but I seem to recall that when I was 20, I thought this was a great example of the world’s most amazing adventure… gone slightly wrong. To quote Leo: “For mine is a generation that circles the globe and searches for something we haven’t tried before. So never refuse an invitation, never resist the unfamiliar, never fail to be polite and never outstay the welcome. Just keep your mind open and suck in the experience. And if it hurts, you know what? It’s probably worth it.” Leo is still pretty hunky, though. Does this comment have anything to do with your review? I’m suddenly not so sure.

  3. Laisha says:

    There was a teacher in my high school who ran an extra-curricular philosophy club for teens at his house (before you go there – he seemed happily married, emotionally stable & with good intentions – still does). I mooned on about the greatness of Still Life With Woodpecker & he gave me verbal smack down, a list of truly great books (which I WISH I kept, though I do remember Dostyevky’s The Idiot & The Great Gatsby being on it) & told me that I needed to read a lot more, think a lot more carefully & grow up, essentially. I needed to hear that & haven’t been brave enough to re-read any Tom Robbins since but may do so soon after reading this!

    1. Kerry says:

      Oh, you really shouldn’t…

  4. Laisha says:

    Okay, I won’t. Like I’ve the time to read bad books – again – sheesh.

  5. Anne says:

    Calm down, the book was fabulou. It was published at the right time when we all needed some frippery. I read it on a vacation in Hawaii in 1980. It was given to me by an outlaw I’d met there.There is no point re-reading most books unless of course it’s just to dis a book that meant something to you when you were in a different mindset.

    1. Kerry says:

      I think reading to dis a book that used to mean something is reason enough. And definitely the best (and only) reason to reread this book.

  6. Adam says:

    This is my favourite book of all time. I’m a 3 year old English teacher, and a man, and Tom Robbins gave me more in this one short tome than I have found in any other literary work, book, story, piece, paper bag, napkin or irrelevant bus-stop scrawling.

    The man’s a genius, and if he appeals to younger audiences it’s because you’ve all grown too old and too stuffy to appreciate the wonders of the universe.

    I suggest you all take mushrooms, drink to excess, dirty up a princess, hitchhike, live in a tent, and cook fresh fish over a fire. Life is for living, and this dude has given all of us a wake-up call on how it should be done.

    I can do nothing for your passionless lives but tell you that I am an outlaw, and this book set me on the path many, many years ago. I still strive for freedom and individuality, and I am still mesmerised by Tom’s skill with the English language.

    Take what you will, get what you can, if you don’t resonate with this work 12 years later maybe you should look at how shitty your life has become and wonder where all the magic went…

    1. Kerry says:

      I don’t know, Adam. I would much rather be me now than then, but I am happy this book still resonates with you, because I do remember how much it once meant to me.

  7. Adam says:

    *34 year old


  8. erin says:

    Oddly enough I too read this book when I was twenty and now I am 32 and reading it for a second time. I’ve been blessed/cursed with an abundance of free time of late and I decided to re read some of my past favs. I passed up even cowgirls get the blues due to Mr. Robbins penchant for describing lesbian sex and outhouses in abundant and rather unflattering terms. I’m a little over half way done with still life and honestly if I never read any reference to a woman’s genitals as either a peach or some kind of fish or some combination of both, I will be just fine. I do enjoy Tom Robbins colorful narrative, but it’s much in the same way one enjoys an erratic airborne bottle rocket. It’s pretty and entertaining but tiresome on the nerves and in the back of your mind you kind of wonder where it’s going.

  9. peachfish says:

    @ Adam, my second fave book of all time, read it when i was 15 & still lovin it @ 29. this post has motivated me to break it out again. gives me a shot of “explosive” efficacy 😉

    sounds to me like someone’s imagination is growing impotent with old age

    btw confederacy of dunces is the first

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