WHAT THE HELL

Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Caveat emptor when you read memoirs

51HzBA01zYL._AA160_I just did a little review of Tom Robbins’ memoir, Tibetan Peach Pie, at Goodreads, and I thought I’d share it here to raise the question of whether writers’ memoirs are fraught with danger. That is, danger of disillusioning you. As you’ll see below, I learned a little more about my long-time hero than I really needed to know.

What do you think? Is it better to let the books stand in for the writer? Or do intimate details from his/her life enhance the experience of reading the books?

Whatever your position, go in with eyes open. Let the buyer beware!

As an adorer of Robbins lo these last forty years, I looked forward to reading this “memoir.” As you might expect, TR does not attack his autobiography like every other celeb writer would; instead he bounces around in his history and recalls stand-out moments as if the two of you are drinking at some La Conner bar and he’s pulling scenes out of his memory pouch to entertain you.

Many of his reminiscences are delightful. We see that he was the mercurial imp from an early age and that a variety of popular hallucinogens only enhanced his uncontainable imagination. But somewhere in there — after his success with Even Cowgirls Get The Blues and Still Life With Woodpecker — his persona became (to my mind) that of a coddled celebrity writer. He jets around the world to exotic locations (including, of course, Timbuktu) and, though he’s anchored in small-town Washington state it feels like he’s the kind of guy who can’t sit still for long without getting bored. Maybe the world inside his head is more appealing.

In a few of his recollections, Robbins made me wish I hadn’t picked up the book at all. Sometimes it’s best not to know much about your popular heroes, and I’ll have to plunk him now in the same category where I keep John Lennon these days: Better to let the work represent the artist rather than his life and opinions.

I saw Robbins at one of those “Conversations With…” events back in the ’90s. He was funny and opinionated and didn’t mind offending some people with his slant on things. It was a nice glimpse of the man — not TMI and not too little either. Now I’m saddled with more than I ever wanted to know.

I give the book three stars, though, because: Hey, it’s Tom Robbins. And he’s 82, for godssakes.

Could be Tibetan Peach Pie disturbed me because these last forty years feel like they’ve flown by…

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10 comments on “Caveat emptor when you read memoirs

  1. sknicholls
    March 22, 2015

    Just think…if he had a blog in back in his prime you would have probably known all that stuff about him beforehand.

    • Kevin Brennan
      March 22, 2015

      True, and I probably wouldn’t have bought the book!

  2. islandeditions
    March 22, 2015

    I’m with you on the last forty years having flown by … how did that happen, anyway??

    I once drove around a big music favourite of mine who had written his autobiography. I was selling his book and had to take him to a couple of interviews and a signing. He acted like a total idiot the entire time and quickly fell off that pedestal where I’d placed him during my teens. I’m afraid he’s never retained his old position in my heart. I just couldn’t forgive him for who he actually was in real life.

    • Kevin Brennan
      March 22, 2015

      Hmmm. After reading a certain memoir last year, I wonder if his last name begins with Y. (I won’t tell!)

  3. 1WriteWay
    March 22, 2015

    “Better to let the work represent the artist rather than his life and opinions”: isn’t that something we (readers and admirers) struggle with all the time? Whether it’s an autobiography or a biography, there’s always that risk of learning that your hero has clay feet, maybe even clay up to the knees. At least that’s why I hope Bruce Springsteen never writes his autobiography and why I don’t read biographies of him. I know I’m idolizing him. He is my last remaining idol and I’ll turn a deaf ear to anyone who tries to prove him to be a “coddled celebrity.” Although I once watched an interview with him, I think it was 60 Minutes, and when talking about how he enjoyed giving 3-hour-long concerts, he laughingly admitted that his son calls him an “attention whore.” But, if he wasn’t, then maybe he wouldn’t give such great concerts. Anyway, I digress.
    Do I have to read Robbins’ book to know what parts made you feel like he was just another coddled celebrity? You say he seems like someone who can’t sit for long without getting bored. But maybe what informs his writing is his physical movement, his curiosity, his interest in exotic places. Or is it an attitude of his that troubles you: traveling to exotic places just because he has the $$ to do so, rubbing elbows with other celebrities because that is the company he prefers. There is a difference between someone who travels because they want to learn more about other people, other cultures, other lands, and someone who does it so they can say they did it, without the experience affecting how they see the world.
    But it also begs the question of why we should expect writers like Tom Robbins or musicians like Springsteen to be any different from any other frail human being. It takes not just talent to be successful in the arts but also ego. Maybe even more ego than talent …

    • Kevin Brennan
      March 22, 2015

      Let’s hope Bruce doesn’t eventually feel like he needs to “tell all.” He’s about the closest thing to Woody Guthrie we’ve got!

      Everything else you say here is true, that some of the elements I didn’t like about TR are exactly the things that give him his unique perspective. On the other hand, magicians don’t usually reveal how they do their tricks… One story that put me off was about how divorced father Tom and his son holed up in the Disneyland Hotel and ordered gobs of room service every day, culminating in the kid ordering basically the entire catering menu one afternoon. There was far too much to eat, so the two of them opened the window and started pelting passersby on the ground with finger food. This from the eighth floor. I don’t know — something about it rubbed me the wrong way…

      There’s more, but what irked me might not irk other readers.

      • 1WriteWay
        March 22, 2015

        Oh, that story would irk me! Big time. I totally get how you feel. Thanks for the warning 😉

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This entry was posted on March 22, 2015 by in Writing and tagged , , , .
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