Nov 7, 2006

New Review of Not-so-new Book

By William S. Allen
Special to THE DAILY

WILD DUCKS FLYING BACKWARD. By Tom Robbins. Bantam, 272 pages, $12, paperback.

‘Wild Ducks’ is mixed bag

Book is compilation of works from 1960s to present day

Author Tom Robbins is very like the lit tle girl who had a little curl.
When he is good, he is very good indeed, and when he is bad, well, you'd have to define bad, something that I'm sure Robbins would be happy to do for you, in the process listing all the varied connotations of the word and commenting on each.

Robbins loves words. He twists them and turns them and combines them in ways that no one has ever thought of before. It's his forte.

"Wild Ducks Flying Backward" is a sampling of Robbins' shorter writings from the 1960s to the present. Included are travel pieces, poems, essays, critiques and a treatment for a movie. There are 68 selections crammed between the book's covers.

After reading some of these, the reader may feel that Robbins has actually said very little, but has said it beautifully.

They are like posters from the Haight-Ashbury in its heyday. We can regard the posters as art, but they are only announcing concerts after all.

Fortunately, not all of the pieces are this type of meringue. "The Day the Earth Spit Warthogs" is a travelogue about an expedition across Tanzania. The unrestrained imagery is here, of course, but there is also a lot of information about Africa. Rhinoceroses avoid conflict with humans whenever possible, but hippopotamuses seek it out. I would have missed that question on a test.

In another selection, "The Genius Waitress," Robbins writes with empathy about young women who are overeducated in unmarketable fields and are forced to take blue collar jobs to make ends meet. "Erudite emissary of eggs over easy...articulate angel of apple pie," he says.

Robbins can be insightful and compassionate. He can be self-deprecating, unlike, say, Norman Mailer or Tom Wolfe, two writers whose works cover the same eras and roughly the same topics. He can also include much that is gratuitously erotic in his portrayals of people and places. Parents take heed. As for his poems, Robbins should have avoided attempting them. Not everyone can be a Renaissance man.

Would I recommend "Wild Ducks Flying Backward"? It is a very mixed bag, some parts are good and some are not, as noted above. If the reader has previously been initiated to Robbins' work and likes it, then give this book a shot. Otherwise, try one of his novels, "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" (good book, bad movie) or "Another Roadside Attraction," perhaps.

Two suggestions: First, don't try to read "Wild Ducks Flying Backward" straight through. You could possibly experience sensory overload — a condition that Robbins favors for himself, by the way — and second, keep in mind that what Robbins writes is just one man's opinion, as is this review. Copyright 2005 THE DECATUR DAILY