By Tom Robbins
Bantam Books, 415 pp.
At first we can't believe it. Tom Robbins, the living writer most admired by successive generations of the counterculture--who brought us the mummified body of Christ at a roadside stand, a ranch full of feminist cowgirls, life as seen from the inside of a cigarette pack--has written a novel about a CIA agent? Can this be?
As a parrot in this novel keeps saying, "People of ze wurl, relax." For one thing, a Robbins novel is never about its characters so much as about the act of reading itself, sheer delight in the baroque use of language and the intimacy of encountering the author's imagination. His novels take place not in the world we inhabit, but in the far stranger world of Tom Robbins's mind. His work features an endless curiosity about the thought and behavior of human beings, especially their religious quirks, combined with a lighthearted spirituality like that of the old Zen masters.
"Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates" (the title apparently comes from Rimbaud) takes a CIA agent named Switters as its protagonist primarily so Robbins can lead us to far-flung places and encounter weird people. In Peru, Switters has a trumped-up consultation with a fellow operative but is primarily concerned with releasing to the wild his grandmother's parrot (the one with that good advice).
On his way to liberate the bird, he encounters an Indian shaman, variously named End of Time and Today is Tomorrow, and whose head is, literally, the shape of a pyramid (there's an explanation, but you don't want to hear). He gives Switters the most powerful psychedelic he's ever encountered--for a Robbins character, that's saying something--one which reveals the deepest secrets of the universe (which are of course indescribable) but at a price: Switters' feet can never again touch the ground. If they do, he will die. So our boy is in a wheelchair. Hence a fierce invalid.
After a brief sojourn in Seattle, where he helps his adolescent stepsister with a term paper on Our Lady of Fatima, Switters makes his way to the Middle East, where he discovers a convent of nuns who have been excommunicated for advocating birth control. They are devoted to their vision of the church; they're just not conventional. They're not entirely celibate, for one thing. One--the oldest, known as "Masked Beauty"--happens to be in possession of the secret third prophecy of Our Lady of Fatima, which directs the world toward a healing that will come not from Rome, but from the direction of a pyramid. Guess which pyramid Switters has in mind.
If all this sounds incredibly silly, it's supposed to. Robbins has always been a proponent of the theory that the greatest wisdom is to be found in comic artists, the ones whom the deep thinkers don't take seriously. He gives a slight twist to things that people take seriously indeed: there are those who believe that pyramids have miraculous powers, and of course many people--including the current Pope--are devoted to Our Lady of Fatima. As a student of world religion, Robbins knows his stuff.
In "Fierce Invalids," he has brought his theories about humor to a kind of apotheosis. Today is Tomorrow's ultimate theory is that the next advance in the human race will come by combining the spiritual understanding of primitive people with the humor of the civilized. Just as a theory of physics believes that cracking the final particle of existence will reveal "an energy field in which light and darkness intermingle," Switters suggests that "light and darkness can merge in a similar fashion on . the social plane . during laughter. . A people who could move in the primal realm of laughter could live free of all life's dualities. They would be the first since the original men, the ancestors of the Real People, to live in harmony with the fundamental essence of the universe."
It is that freedom from dualities that is the important part, the freedom of true liberation. Switters-like Robbins-wants to hold on to everything, to be sexual and spiritual, devout and skeptical, fully aware but also, on selected occasions, totally blotto. There is something to be learned from all these states, and a full life includes them all. He would agree with the epigraph to the novel, from a Hindu verse:
Now the scholar
Now the fool
Thus they appear on earth:
The free men.