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Tom Robbins returns with a rowdy set of short-takes

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Thank Heaven, and Hades too, for Tom Robbins.

Just when dreary crises dominate the news, or when political correctness strangles debate, or when staid thinking replicates the same old tired stuff, along comes the literary wizard of La Conner to blow out the tailpipes, liberate the zoo animals, erase the voicemail, howl at Pluto and raise that warped funhouse mirror at any incipient outbreak of pomposity, trendiness, hype or tripe.

So another Robbins volume is cause for both giddy hosannas and girding the cerebrum for another onslaught of mind-bending metaphors and linguistic somersaults. This time, though, it's not another Robbins novel performing his usual unusual feats. It's his first-ever collection of short writings -- travel pieces, magazine tributes, album liner notes, answers to vexing questions, country ballads, assorted musings, even poems, almost everything except perhaps his most recent lunch order at the Rexville Grocery.

"Wild Ducks Flying Backward" (Bantam, 256 pages, $25) is one spicy bouillabaisse cooked up by Robbins' hyperkinetic imagination and his prodigious galaxy of interests. Name one other writer (go ahead, try) who can salute the delights of mayonnaise, castigate "crybaby fiction," celebrate the zeitgeist of the letter "Z," get lascivious over Jennifer Jason Leigh and Diane Keaton, craft a critical look at visual artists, pen a tilted love letter to his native land and describe motoring along in his one-time '76 Cadillac DeVille as "so smooth it was like riding on Twinkie cream."

Of course, a collection of this sort has its highlights, lowlights and midlights and everything betwixt and between the cracks. Some pieces are brilliant constructs, some are sax riffs, some belly flops.

But what "Wild Ducks Flying Backward" really does provide is a nonfiction glimpse into the life and mind of the best-selling fictionmeister, all these bits and pieces adding up to a portrait of the guy behind his "crazy wisdom" novel world of make believe and too darn true. For his loyal legions of smitten readers, this collection may be the closest they will ever come to a Robbins memoir.

"That's for God sure," Robbins confirmed this week. "People write memoirs because they lack the imagination to make things up."

This book includes a supercharged review of a Seattle show by the Doors from the fabled Helix alternative paper in 1967 ("their style is early cunnilingual,late patricidal, lunchtime in the Everglades, Black Forest blood sausage on electrified bread ...") and a concise appreciation of novelist Thomas Pynchon in Bookforum magazine this year ("Pynchon is most impressive when he reaches into a vast bin of squirming language and plucks out a noun that is fresh and unexpected, yet totally appropriate.").

Along the way there is Robbins' immortal evocation of the allures of this sodden corner of the country that first appeared in Sasquatch Books' resonant collection "Edge Walking on the Western Rim." Here, Robbins toasts the toadstools, celebrates the rain, the drizzle, the cloud-clotted skies:

"The shore of Puget Sound is where electric guitars cut their teeth and old haiku go to die. ... As a result of the weather, ours is a landscape in a minor key, a sketchy panorama where objects, both organic and inorganic, lack well-defined edges and tend to melt together, creating a perpetual blurred effect, as if God, after creating Northwestern Washington, had second thoughts and tried unsuccessfully to erase it."

Robbins does mount his high horse at times in this collection, don his armor suit and wield his Excalibur at his critics and sometime readers who have mistakenly attempted to attach the ball & chain of "whimsy" to his work.

Rhetorical and literary delights galore reside in his novels, but make no mistake that the high-wire aerialist of La Conner is dead serious and purposeful about what he describes as his "fusion of prankish Asian wisdom, extra-dimensional Latin magic, and two-fisted North American poetic pizzazz."

There is much more to Tom Robbins and his work than is sometimes assumed and that is confirmed again by the startling collection of "Wild Ducks Flying Backward."

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