Tom Robbins: Wild Ducks Flying Backward

Tom Robbins: Wild Ducks Flying Backward

In 2003, Borders Books' free giveaway magazine Inside Borders asked Even Cowgirls Get The Blues author Tom Robbins, "What is the function of metaphor?" His two-page response—one of dozens of scattered snippets gathered in his new odds-and-sods collection Wild Ducks Flying Backward—waxes rapturously and metaphorically in response, assuring readers that "language is not the frosting, it's the cake." Still, there's far too much frosting and not nearly enough cake in Wild Ducks Flying Backward, a random-seeming assemblage of decades of previously published essaylets, travelogues, poems, critiques, Shel Silverstein-esque country lyrics, response to questions like the Inside Borders query, and other ephemera. Without a narrative framework or a specific philosophical point to make, Robbins tends to ramble, and to pile up the metaphors enthusiastically but haphazardly, as with his 1967 description of The Doors: "early cunnilingual, late patricidal, lunchtime in the Everglades, Black Forest blood sausage on electrified bread, Jean Genet up a totem pole, artists at the barricades, Edgar Allan Poe drowning in his birdbath, Massacre of the Innocents, tarantella of the satyrs, bacchanalian, Dionysian, L.A. pagans drawing down the moon."

The Doors piece is one of a pile of brief paeans to everything from kissing to McDonald's founder Ray Kroc to redheaded women to Shree Bhagwan Rajneesh to MTV VJ Duff. Segmented off into their own area, these rapturous panegyrics pile up until they start to lose meaning and feel like a lot of indistinguishable gushing, as though Robbins was taking up the challenge to wax poetic on any noun or name provided. His travel pieces are solider, though still so hyperbolic, energetic, and expansive that they sound like fiction; his 1988 Esquire piece about traveling to Nevada to see a canyon coated in vagina petroglyphs seems more like the first chapter of an entertainingly demented Robbins road novel than a guide to a real place.

A spare handful of the pieces in Wild Ducks Flying Backward are meatier, and as stimulating to the brain's logic center as to its language center. His country songs are begging for a suitably twangy, smoky-bar performance. And when he has a point to make, Robbins' essays feel like his fiction: engagingly loopy and full of his signature "crazy wisdom." But far too much of Wild Ducks Flying Backward simply feels like a lingual graveyard, where—to use the sort of phrasing Robbins might employ—indiscriminate, random praise and bushel-loads of hit-and-miss metaphors pile up until they smother each other to death, then lie baking in the light of closer examination, bleaching their relevance away.

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