Even Cowgirls Get the Blues – Language Over Story
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues
Tom Robbins’ Even Cowgirls Get the Blues is a self-conscious novel—a novel that knows it is a novel, and reminds you of this fact at every opportunity. Its self-consciousness, best seen in Robbins’ recurring statements of what "the author" does or doesn’t know, serves Robbins as a means of humanizing his author and assuring us of the author’s lack of omniscience. This self-consciousness is a distancing mechanism that serves as a disclaimer to the many philosophical ideas presented in this book. It also distances us from the characters, who often seem to be arbitrary constructions of the author’s mind, every bit as much as the novel’s ideas.
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues follows the life of Sissy Hankshaw, a Richmond Virginia girl born with unusually large thumbs. Her thumbs are so impossibly large that she is impaired from performing mundane tasks such as buttoning her dress. But, apparently heeding the call of her own physiological destiny, she develops a love of hitchhiking. After she runs away from her oafish parents at the age of seventeen, she becomes an underground legend, her hitchhiking exploits spoken of throughout the land. She also grows into a beautiful woman, and is drafted into occasional modeling work by the Countess, a male homosexual feminine-hygiene tycoon.
The Countess, knowing that Sissy has remained a virgin despite her peregrinations, sets up Sissy with Julian Gitche, a painter of Mohawk Indian extraction who, after marrying her, has little impact on Sissy or the novel. For Sissy is soon sent to the Rubber Rose Ranch, an obscure holding of the Countess, who wants Sissy to head out there for a photo-shoot for a new hygiene products campaign, as well as to check on things because trouble is a-brewing.
As we know from the book’s title, as well as from the many "cowgirl interludes" that interrupt the books’ first two hundred pages, the Rubber Rose Ranch will be the locus of the book’s main action. The Rubber Rose Ranch begins as a beautifying retreat for women, a place they can rest, be massaged, and otherwise make themselves more enticing, presumably for their next marriage. The Countess is worried that this side project will get out of control, however, as a young cowgirl calling herself Bonanza Jellybean is uniting many of the female ranch hands under a feminist/anti-feminine-hygiene-products ideology. Thus, the cowgirl faction is especially galled that the Countess is intending to shoot a new commercial on the Ranch’s compound, starring Sissy Hankshaw, and timed to coincide with the migration of endangered whooping cranes over the ranch, cranes whom the Countess believes would enhance the power of the ad. Instead, the cranes are transported to a frenzy by witnessing the cosmically important mating of Sissy Hankshaw and Bonanza Jellybean, and apparently get such a good vibe from the liberating lesbian sex, that they decide to abandon their usual migration patterns and stay at the Rubber Rose Ranch.
Although the book reads easily, it is surprising how many pages it takes Robbins to bring his story to a close. The cowgirls’ revolution against the Countess (echoing the revolution in Animal Farm) toward the novel’s middle could have come much earlier. As said, the Julian character does nothing for the story, other than make Sissy’s affairs with Bonanza Jellybean and The Chink adulterous, and so all the more liberating for her. The cowgirl revolution is action enough to sustain our interest, hopefully giving us enough momentum to push us through nearly 100 pages of Part IV, in which Sissy tells Dr. Robbins about her time with The Chink and the philosophical discussion of the Clockworks. The Chink is Tom Robbins’ philosophical mouthpiece, a holy pagan spewing out an eclectic collection of Eastern tenets, New Age truisms, paradoxes, and generally anti-Western, anti-progress, anti-technology salvos. The ideas are presented preciously, in a cute, anti-academic manner. The potential "dryness" of the discussions of pagan religions is off-set by the hip, funny, contemporary language with which they are related.
Robbins is a writer of extraordinary charms and ability, but is here a little too conscious of his talent. Reading Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1976) is like listening to an older stoner-buddy philosophy-major rapping about the amazing insights he experienced during his last acid trip. Robbins is chatty, digressive, and eclectic. His greatest gift is for the off-beat description. Indeed, his powers of description are so fertile that he wants to describe the same thing several different ways. This descriptive fecundity, while often delightful, is just as likely to annoy or obfuscate with its cloying cuteness and excessive verbiage. Robbins is in need of a good editor; leaving in only Robbins’ best descriptions could have made this a much more compact and enjoyable 300 pages or less.
We keep reading because of the language and the humor. Neither the story nor the characters are particularly compelling. Characters are too often rendered as a sack of striking straits rather than integrated human beings. Sissy’s thumbs, despite their thematic importance, seem tacked onto her like a tail on a donkey. We are so conscious of Robbins sticking those big thumbs onto Sissy, that we are unmoved when she (or Robbins) decides they must be surgically removed late the book. (But only one thumb is removed, implying Sissy will keep part of her special soul.) The thumbs as a device recall the magic realism of authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude) and Toni Morrison (Song of Solomon), who imbued their characters with mythological characteristics without overstretching our credulity. They wrote new myths, seriously, and yet with humor, and without disclaimers or authorial intrusions. Robbins, however, writes with too much of a smirk to allow us to forget his important presence as "the author," and unfortunate incarnation as Dr. Robbins. But we see Tom Robbins’ fingerprints all over his characters: the Countess is a ripple-swilling misogynist with ever-clattering false teeth; Dr. Robbins is pretty much a talking moustache; the Chink is Robbins’ philosophical mouthpiece, ever whipping out his pecker and saying "ha ha ho ho and hee hee"; most of the cowgirls (Debbie, Mary, Big Red) are little more than names on a page. Even Bonanza Jellybean, the book’s martyr, is little more than "the cutest cowgirl in the world" (392). Most of the characters’ dialogue, even Sissy’s, is undifferentiated; they all speak too much like Robbins writes.
The main story-line is Sissy’s voyage of self-discovery, but this mainly takes the form of hearing The Chink’s or Dr. Robbins’s ideas, and having sex with Bonanza and The Chink. The main plot engine of the novel’s second half—the endangered whooping cranes unnatural decision to stay at the Rubber Rose rather than winter in Texas, and the cowgirls’ subsequent stand-off with the FBI—seems so contrived and subservient to Robbins’ philosophical ideas that it is hard to care who wins the showdown. The fact that Sissy is allowed to escape the ranch just before the big showdown may be evidence of Robbins’ own uncertainty on how the book should end—he may have gotten her off the ranch to prepare for a pitched battle—but there was no need for Sissy to escape once Robbins made the decision to not wipe out the cowgirls. The present ending, with Bonanza Jellybean’s death and Sissy’s and The Chink’s baby (the familiar birth-cancels-out-death ending), is as satisfying as any other possible ending given our distance from the characters.
Indeed, in lieu of story and characterization, Robbins’ two motivations for writing seem to be to amuse and to impart his views about religion (the book’s "about the author" paragraph describes Robbins as "a former student of art and religion."). This is a book driven more by ideas than observation and understanding of the human condition. The central idea behind Robbins’ view of religion is that ancient life-affirming pagan matriarchies were wiped out by other-worldly, Judeo-Christian patriarchies, whose progeny in turn spawned the evils of technology and civilization. This idea underscores Robbins’ feminism, at times taken to the point of self-parody when put in the mouths of some of the cowgirls. Too often in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Robbins show he has not yet learned the principle lesson for the philosophical novelist: that to convey ideas effectively, the philosophical novel must dramatize ideas rather than proclaim them. Show, don’t tell.
Robbins’ philosophical showpiece, the Clockworks, intends to show us how the measurement of linear time is the scourge of modern humanity. The Chink, as a young man, learned about the Clockworks from an eclectic group of American Indians. Although an elaborate metaphor, the essence of the Clockworks is that they chime the passage of time in a random fashion, sounding as often as a few seconds apart and as little as months apart. This presumably helps its adherents to stay grounded in the now, rather than the sinister segmentation of life effected by Western time with its ubiquitous uniform clocks. Despite the clarity of Robbins’ Clockworks critique of linear time, the idea that time is relativistic has experienced such wide currency in literature since Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity and the drooping clocks hanging from spare branches in Dali’s Persistence of Memory paintings that it is hard to be excited by it. But Robbins tries hard: his Clock People toiling through the caves echo the central metaphor in western philosophy, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, though for Robbins, the people in the caves are enlightened, and the people in the light are misguided.
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues contains much more charm, wit, and metaphorical invention than many novels. It is also very much a product of its time, a countercultural novel, with strong antecedents in the work of Vonnegut, Pynchon (who endorsed this work), Heller, and Salinger. But it has not aged as well as Slaughterhouse Five, Gravity’s Rainbow, Catch-22, or The Catcher in The Rye, and lacks their literary importance. Robbins’ work occupies a middle-brow realm similar to the work of John Irving (The World According To Garp, A Prayer for Owen Meany); but Irving’s work, with its well-drawn characters and compelling (if visibly architected) stories, will probably outlive Robbins’. Robbins’ work is inspired by the attitudes of the Sixties’ counterculture, Romantic attitudes that will always live on and morph into different forms, but whose Sixties incarnation may not be as compelling to read in the decades ahead.
7 November 1999