GIVE ROMANCE A CHANCE
A Belated Appraisal of “Still Life With Woodpecker,” by Tom Robbins
“Unwilling to wait for mankind to improve, the outlaw lives as if that day were here.”
—Bernard Mickey Wrangle
In 1980, Ronald Reagan became POTUS, MTV turned negative one, & Tom Robbins published Still Life With Woodpecker. Peradventure, your mother was a Tom Robbins fan when you were growing up. You remember his books & their quirky titles — Skinny Legs And All, Jitterbug Perfume — & Uma Thurman as a hitchhiker with prosthetically enlarged thumbs in the film adaptation of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. You may have borrowed your mom’s copy of Even Cowgirls the novel, on the pretext of reading it, but being an adolescent at the time, all you really did was flip through the pages looking for sex scenes.
So, you nearly missed the Tom Robbins express train to cult literary Nirvana. Luckily, in your present life as a grownup in a whole new millennium, you chance upon a rack-size paperback of Still Life With Woodpecker, from a free pile or tiny library, & take it home to read. Suddenly, your mother’s enthusiasm all those years ago comes back, & makes perfect sense. You are soon hooked by this winsome yarn about a wayward modern princess named Leigh-Cheri, on the cusp of adulthood, who breaks away from her punctilious parents for a fateful sojourn on Maui.
“Who knows how to make love stay?” That’s the question asked early on & woven through the novel. We are invited to ponder the fleeting & elusive quality of love, why we can’t hold on to the first rush of connection & stay in love, forever. At the core of Still Life With Woodpecker is a love story, irreverently told by the inimitable Tom Robbins, comprising equal parts oldfashioned storybook romance, Greco-Shakespearean tragedy, Lady & the Tramp, & Bonnie & Clyde. This love story begins & ends with a bang, literally, in the form of dynamite. It dispenses with sentiment, skips over courtship, & cuts to the chase. If you’re a reader of warped sensibility who usually spurns romance, given what it signifies as a modern literary genre, here is an alternative romance that may suit your taste.
It’s not all glitter & lollipops, the life of a princess in the loveless postmodern wasteland of the 20th century. Leigh-Cheri’s position is privileged, but with many strings attached: she must follow a draconian code of conduct, known as the Furstenberg-Barcalona code, to retain the good graces of her station. She lives with her parents, King Max & Queen Tillie, deposed monarchs of an unnamed country who were forced into exile by a populist uprising, along with their stout & loyal maid, Gulietta, in a large but not luxuriant house on the outskirts of Seattle. This outpost of Puget Sound rain & blackberries gone berserk will have to suffice as their surrogate home, until the political fortunes of their obscure homeland improve. But that won’t be long, if the royalist coup their friends back home are cooking up comes out according to plan! Discretion is required, for they also live with a manservant named Chuck who affects to be their gardener, chauffeur, & Poker mate while spying on their political activities for the CIA. Happily, his bumbling ineptitude & lack of stealth undermine the effects of his subterfuge. Robbins, an equal-opportunity scorn purveyor, drips satire on the pâté de foie gras pretensions of the rich & flatulent, & the skullduggery of state surveillance agents, alike.
There is a fairy tale buried in this subversive romance, a tongue-in-cheek adult fairy tale in which our Princess wrestles with grownup problems like birth control & ovulation, & her Prince Charming at first comes off more like a misanthropic toad. Robbins writes compellingly of Leigh-Cheri’s anxiety & self-loathing around her newly awakened reproductive system & the Pandora’s box of problems that it opens. Her own body & womb do not belong to her entirely, but are monitored & controlled by parents & the harsh doctors they send her to for uterus scrapings & vaginal probings & contraception device fittings. She is not allowed to enjoy her newfound sexual & reproductive powers, but must remain chaste & virginal & self-repressive at all costs. Only with effort, & as a sort of compromise, does she manage to convince Max & Tillie to let her go to Maui for the CareFest conference, but they send Gulietta along as chaperone, with strict orders.
This would be a good point to stop reading if you haven’t read “Still Life With Woodpecker” yet & don’t want spoilers; this review is intended as a dessert rather than an appetizer.
The ‘Woodpecker’ of the title refers to Bernard Mickey Wrangle, a notorious fugitive (in the government’s eyes) or romantic outlaw (in his own) whose path collides with Leigh-Cheri’s on Maui. They are both drawn, for wildly divergent reasons, to CareFest, a New Age-y confluence of spiritual enlighteners, social justice crusaders, oppressed minority bewailers, & tree-hugging earth protectors. Ralph Nader, that earnest do-gooder & paragon of integrity, is the keynote speaker, much to the moist excitement of Leigh-Cheri, who has a big crush on him. Robbins portrays Nader as a pitiable, self-denying dullard, caught up in the empty spectacle of politics as a substitute for getting laid. Bernard, who has little relish for “save the world!” posturing & liberal platitudes, manages to lure Leigh-Cheri away, right in the middle of the keynote address no less, to his boat for some of what Nader is missing. Luckily, they manage to lose Gulietta before things get lewd & horizontal. Here is a scene you will not find in the old world fairy tales.
Woodpecker, as he is known colloquially & to the law enforcement community, has interesting things to say about the conflict between social idealism & romanticism. He is in the latter camp, seeing himself as a romantic outlaw, a present-day picaro of sorts in this picaresque adventure — which is also a love story, which is also a postmodern fairy tale. Bernard flouts society’s rules, living like a desperado & blowing stuff up for the hell of it. He takes it as a compliment that he’s one of the FBI’s Most Wanted. Nader-esque reformers, who see themselves as “changing the system from within,” are seen by Bernard as part of the problem. He doesn’t want to be assimilated by government bureaucracy, having seen how “political idealism can transform human beings into androids.” His seditious spirit & penchant for pyrotechnics recall the Weather Underground Organization; he would be more at home in the 1960s counterculture. Was more at home, rather; for Bernard is young at heart, more so than young in years, when he meets Leigh-Cheri.
They are in propinquity with one another insofar as they are both at odds with society. He is part of a fading generation, & a cultural conflagration now reduced to embers. She is part of a fading family, & an obsolete class system left over from feudal times, regarded as quaint (at best) by most of the modern world; certainly by the western world of American democracy in “the last quarter of the twentieth century” (to quote one of the book’s refrains).
Bernard knows very well how authoritarian & repressive America can be, having incurred the state’s wrath with his outlaw shenanigans; still, he’ll take it over most places for individual freedom, & defend it against the mandatory mediocrity of communism. Whether that’s changed in the almost four decades since the novel’s publication is an open question; we suspect Woodpecker would have a harder time boarding airplanes with explosives now than in 1980, for one thing.
Still Life With Woodpecker is great fun to read, the work of a devilishly clever author, with enough whimsical exuberance to charm the pants off a pixie. The narrator of the tale, who would seem to be none other than Mr. Robbins, the author of the tale, is the endlessly entertaining emulsion in which the story, characters, & various subplots are suspended. The narrative is chockablock with hilarious metaphors (“Spring came to the Pacific Northwest… like a bridesmaid climbing a greased pole”), vivid analogies, mind-bending images, & dry social commentary (“The yogi had the stink of eternity about him, & in many circles these days eternity is simply no longer fashionable”), always freshly minted, & churned out in a profusion that suggests boundless creative energy.
Robbins breaks down the fourth wall with a series of “typewriter monologues” that precede each of the book’s several sections, sharing with readers his excitement over the fancy new typewriter he’s just acquired, hoping that all its bells & whistles will conduce to literary excellence. His feelings for the typewriter parody the stages of a nipped-in-the-bud love affair: first he’s enamored by it, & filled with enthusiasm for the literary excellence it promises; a little while later, the first rush already wearing off, he’s beginning to have doubts; not long after that, the crash comes; he wants to return it & now bears a grudge against technology in general. Ambivalence in the face of advancing technology clearly registers here, & yet the author is discussing typewriters as state-of-the-art devices, clueless that the age of the internet & personal computers lay just around the corner! This is one of the few conspicuously “dated” elements of the novel. Another is the lingering Cold War fear of being invaded by Russia, which comes up at one point in our protagonists’ conversation.
The narrative is full of dithyrambic digressions, scattered throughout like intermittent fireworks; rants, diatribes, droll disquisitions, bits of esoterica, & one creepy parable about a fickle princess & an unforgiving frog. You will walk away from Still Life knowing, if you didn’t already, about lunaception, Hawaiian mongoose syndrome, Berber burial customs, essential versus inessential insanities, the history of Sunday & its connection to primitive superstitions about female menstruation, what “neoteny” means & why being “rebellious, playful & immature” may have given humanity its evolutionary edge, & plenty more. It’s all fascinating information, although sometimes the reader isn’t sure which side of the fact / fiction divide we’re on, since the line between the two is left a bit blurry (by design?)
Nor is Robbins afraid, as a more square & sober author might be, to drag in mysticism, UFOs, & arcane conspiracy theories, concerning redheads, ancient pyramids, dollar bills & Camel cigarettes. We are even treated to a series of “homemade bomb recipes,” courtesy of our rabble-rousing Woodpecker, who clearly knows his way around The Anarchist Cookbook.
Leigh-Cheri & Bernard’s liaison seems destined for a crappy ending rather than a happy one, given the many forces arrayed against it: parental disapproval, tragic accidents, state surveillance & intervention, public scrutiny & media prying (Leigh-Cheri as debutante princess is becoming tabloid fodder, to Bernard’s disgust), & competition for our heroine’s hand by a wealthy & powerful Arabic prince, who comes pre-endowed with parental marriage approval. For all this adversity, though, it’s the internal challenges of their relationship, & the difficulty of reconciling their different backgrounds & personalities, that comes closest to tearing them apart. His cavalier & unsentimental approach to affairs of the heart, versus her ingenuous devotion & lovestruck illusions. We fear he will break her heart by accident, like the spine of Queen Tillie’s chihuahua.
When the feds finally catch up with Woodpecker & sentence him to the pen, Leigh-Cheri, in solidarity, sequesters herself in the dark attic of her house for an equal span of time, replicating in detail the extreme austerity of his solitary confinement. A lengthy passage ensues in which time & the story’s plot stand still. For months on end, the princess has nothing to solace or stimulate her in this self-imposed purgatory beyond her love for Bernard & a pack of Camel cigarettes that represents him. This benighted interlude, we could say, is her “still life” with Woodpecker. It’s touching proof of her constancy, but sadly goes unrecognized by him who inspired it.
You may or may not learn the purpose of the moon, or a foolproof way to make love stay, by reading this novel, but there are far less enjoyable ways to pass the time; at the very least, you’ll never look at a pack of Camel cigarettes the same way.
Three cheers for Still Life With Woodpecker, a sparkling tribute to the beauty & joy of free spirits that will never grow old!
—Tony Nightwalker LeTigre