Written by: Tom Robbins
Published by: Bantam Doubleday Dell
As a matter of full disclosure, I must admit up front that I am a Robbins completist. I’ve read ’em all, and liked ’em all. I am overjoyed by the fact that there still exists a cadre of writers for whom composition is the reason they write, rather than the process they must suffer through to tell their tales. Robbins takes a palpable joy in the written word, and the endless possibilities of simile and metaphor (pushing both to their absolute limit at every opportunity).
That said, Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates is fantastic. Not Robbins’ best (which title still belongs rightfully to Skinny Legs and All), but definitely Robbins AT his best. As with most of his novels, the plot can be somewhat incidental, but here’s a summary — renegade CIA agent Switters must go to the Amazon on a good will recruiting trip for a new agent. As a favor to his elderly hacker grandmother (and in order to receive her fabulous Matisse in the will), he agrees to release her pet parrot in the Amazon while he’s there.
Straightforward, no? Weird, but straightforward.
[ad#longpost]In the Amazon, Switters meets a Kandankero Indian shaman with a pyramid-shaped head named “Today Is Tomorrow.” After a hallucinogenic enlightenment trip to the “Hallways of Always,” Switters is placed under a taboo preventing him from placing his feet upon the ground. In one night of bacchanalian Zen enlightenment, Switters becomes a fierce invalid, bound to his Invacare 9000 wheelchair (or sometimes stilts).
Let’s just say it doesn’t approach normality at any point following. To sum up, the remainder of the book involves a group of extremely odd nuns in Syria (with names like Mustang Sally, Masked Beauty, Zuzu, and Domino Thirry), the lost prophecy of Our Lady of Fatima, rabid Syrian Muslim militants, an extremely annoyed Vatican, Henri Matisse’s Blue Nude, coffeeshop girls in Seattle, gutter-boat races, a little bit of gunplay, some sex, a near-death experience, and one decapitation.
At its heart, Robbins’ novel is less fiction and more cleverly disguised social commentary and philosophical essay. The notion at the core of Fierce Invalids is a simple one, really, revolving around the idea that opposites are made to be reconciled, and that the further advancement of the human race lies in embracing polarity and resolving it. The 415 pages of brilliant prose required to satisfactorily perform some exposition on that idea is all just part of the fun. As with most of Robbins’ novels, the joy is not so much in the ending, but in the process of getting there. After the whirlwind tour of linguistic acrobatics and mind-bending throughout the book, the conclusion is really an afterthought anyway.
Diagnosis: Absolutely anarchic prose for those in love with words. Robbins novels should come with a guarantee of a better vocabulary for those that complete them. Most important words in the book: unique, and vivid. For those unfamiliar with Robbins, the book may be a too-sudden introduction to the way Tom does business. Warm up with Even Cowgirls Get the Blues or Still Life With Woodpecker before tackling this one. For those that are seasoned Robbins vets, grab your copy today.