The fierce invalid in Tom Robbins's seventh novel is a philosophical, hedonistic U.S. operative very loosely inspired by a friend of the author. "Sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll are enormously popular in the CIA," claims Switters. "Not with all the agents in the field, but with the good ones, the brightest and the best." Switters isn't really an invalid, but during his first mission (to set free his ornery grandma's parrot, Sailor, in the Amazon jungle), he gets zapped by a spell cast by a "misshapen shaman" of the Kandakandero tribe named End of Time. The shaman is reminiscent of Carlos Castaneda's giggly guru, but his head is pyramid-shaped. In return for a mind-bending trip into cosmic truth--"the Hallways of Always"--Switters must not let his foot touch the earth, or he'll die.
Not that a little death threat can slow him down. Switters simply hops into a wheelchair and rolls off to further footloose adventures, occasionally switching to stilts. For a Robbins hero, to be just a bit high, not earthbound, facilitates enlightenment. He bops from Peru to Seattle, where he's beguiled by the Art Girls of the Pike Place Market and his 16-year-old stepsister, and then off to Syria, where he falls in with a pack of renegade nuns bearing names like Mustang Sally and Domino Thirry. Will Switters see Domino tumble and solve the mystery of the Virgin Mary? Can the nuns convince the Pope to favor birth control--to "zonk the zygotic zillions and mitigate the multitudinous milt" and "wrest free from a woman's shoulders the boa of spermatozoa?" Can the author ever resist a shameless pun or a mutant metaphor?
The tangly plot is almost beside the point. Switters is a colorful undercover agent, and a Robbins novel is really a colorful undercover essay celebrating sex and innocence, drugs and a firm wariness of anything that tries to rewire the mind, and Broadway tunes, especially "Send in the Clowns." Some readers will be intensely offended by Switters's yen for youth and idiosyncratic views on vice. But fans will feel that extremism in the pursuit of serious fun is virtue incarnate. Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates is classic Tom Robbins: all smiles, similes, and subversion.
I can't hold back any longer, here's the quote I've been promising:
Suppose the neutral angels were able to talk Yahweh and Lucifer--God and Satan, to use their popular titles--into settling out of court. What would be the terms of the compromise? Specifically, how would they divide the assets of their earthly kingdoms?
Would God be satisfied to take loaves of bread and fishes and itty-bitty thimbles of Communion wine, while allowing Satan to have the red-eye gravy, eighteen-ounce New York steaks, and buckets of chilled champagne? Would God really accept twice-a-month lovemaking for procreative purposes and give Satan the all-night, no-holds-barred, nasty "can't-get-enough-of-you" hot-as-hell fucks?
Think about it. Would Satan get New Orleans, Bangkok, and the French Riviera and God get Salt Lake City? Satan get ice hockey, God get horseshoes? God get bingo; Satan, stud poker? Satan get LSD; God, Prozac? God get Neil Simon, Satan, Oscar Wilde?
Cana nyone see Satan taking pirate radio stations and God being happy with the likes of CBS? God getting twin beds; Satan, waterbeds; God, Minnie Mouse, John Wayne, and Shirley Temple; Satan, Betty Boop, Peter Lorre, and Mae West; God, Billy Graham; Satan, the Dalai Lama? Would Satan get Harley motorcycles; God, Honda gold carts? Satan get blue jeans and fish-net stockings; God, polyester suits and pantyhose? Satan get electric guitars; God, pipe organs; Satan get Andy Warhol and James Joyce; God, Andrew Wyeth and James Michener; God, the 700 Club; Satan, the C.R.A.F.T. Club; Satan, oriental rugs; God, shag carpeting? Would God settle for cash and let Satan leave town with Mr. Plastic? Would Satan mambo and God waltz?
Would Almighty God be that dorky? Or would he see rather quickly that Satan was making off with most of the really interesting stuff? More than likely he would. More than likely, God would holler, "Whoa! Wait just a minute here, Lucifer. Ii'll take the pool halls and juke joints, YOU take the church basements and Boy Scout jamborees. You handle content for a change, pal. I'm going to take--STYLE!!
It's my birthday and YOU get a present! As for me, I'll be enjoying the rest of the day for sure.