Still Life With Woodpecker


Tom Robbins




Date Reviewed:

January 1, 2009

om Robbins sure can write. No doubt he is a clever, witty guy full of off-beat ideas. Robbins seems like an optimistic person with a skewed (but fun) way of looking at the world, sort of like Jonathan Carroll or Matt Ruff. Robbins throws out ideas, vignettes, digressions, unusual statistics, and funny little side stories, he must be a wonderful guy to listen to, an endless fount of imagination and alternative reality. Robbins sure keeps you turning the pages.

Unfortunately, Robbins kept me turning the pages hoping that the characters in Still Life with Woodpecker would wise up. Or at least, I was hoping that the heroine, Leigh-Cherie, would develop some brains, but instead she lapses further into absurdity. This book was written a while ago (copyright: 1980), and it has not aged well. The "protagonist" is Bernard Wrangle - except he is no hero, he is a terrorist. Bernard plants bombs that blow things up, and he doens't seem to have any care whether or not people die as a result. Perhaps in 1980 it was possible to portray a terrorist as an outlaw figure, and make him seem like a modern day Robin Hood (though Wrangle isn't dedicated to any true cause, he is just blows things up because it is his nature to terrorize people and shake them out of their routine lives.) I found it impossible to identify with a terrorist. I kept hoping the Leigh-Cherie would dump this jerk, but even when he is arrested for his crimes, she only falls more deeply in love with him.

There is one tedious section of the novel, when Bernard is imprisoned. Leigh-Cherie decides that if her true love is held in confinement, then she will show her devotion by voluntarily living in solitary confinement also. So Leigh-Cheries moves into her attic, and jettisons all the books, televison and other entertainment devices. Just like Bernard, Leigh-Cherie will while away the hours of her life in pointless confinement. The only thing in the attic with her is a pack of Camel cigarettes. What follows is a LONG description of all the secret symbolism the Leigh-Cherie imagines is hidden in the picture on the cigarette cartoon. Robbins is showing off here - it is the equivalent of him living up to the oft heard boast "He could make even a phone book interesting!". In this case, Robbins is trying to make even a carton of Camel cigaretters interesting, and he does succeed somewhat, but this section goes on too long.

Does Bernard appreciate Leigh-Cherie's gesture of voluntary confinement to match his own? Of course not, he is a completely unlikeable jerk (and he has bad teeth!) Bernard sends Leigh-Cherie a sharp letter criticizing her attention grabbing stunt. Stung by Bernard's betrayal, Leigh-Cherie decides to marry a rich Arab prince instead. Hey, it's a Tom Robbin's novel, any whacky thing can happen. Alas, that isn't the end of Bernard. He makes an unwelcome return to the narrative, and thus ruins the rest of the book.

Many years ago (perhaps way back in high school!),I read Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins. That was a wonderful novel. It was just as offbeat with quirky Tom Robbins surprising story-telling and his gift for words, but unlike Still Life with Woodpecker, Jitterbug Perfume had characters that I really liked. It is a much better book than Still Life with Woodpecker, I recommend it instead of this one.