'Tommy Rotten'

An excerpt from 'Tibetan Peach Pie' by Tom Robbins

Throughout most, maybe all, of my childhood, my mother’s pet name for me was Tommy Rotten.  I use the term “pet name” advisedly, for though it had been born in perplexity and consternation, it was invariably spoken with affection  --  and sometimes actually with a kind of ill-concealed admiration.

Lest anyone be tempted to characterize Tommy Rotten as a prototype of Bart Simpson, let it be known that for all my reckless (and usually hedonistic) mischief, I was as much a Lisa Simpson as a Bart.  That is to say, I was cursed with that gene that causes children thusly afflicted to exhibit overt signs of sensitivity, to go around creating stuff (drawing pictures, putting on puppet shows, banging on the piano); and, in extreme cases, to behave as if the thermostats on their imaginations were set permanently on High.

It was almost as if some mad literary fairy, hatched, perhaps in a poppy in Oscar Wilde’s garden, had tapped me with her wand as I lay in my cradle, because I fell totally in love with books as soon as I knew what books were, and I hadn’t been talking in complete sentences for many months before I announced to my parents that I intended to be a writer.

Too impatient to wait until I could spell words and scrawl them on paper, I turned my mother into my private secretary.  When the Muse bit me, as she did rather frequently, being indifferent to child labor laws, I’d call on Mother to stop whatever she was doing and take dictation.  The fact that she was so willing to comply may be attributed to the fact that Mother herself was a frustrated writer.  At eighteen, she’d been offered a scholarship to Columbia University but had been too frightened to move to New York.

It was doubtlessly her sublimated literary ambition that prompted Mother to occasionally change the wording of my dictation, to improve (in her opinion) my prose style.  However, I always remembered each and every sentence I’d spoken, and would throw a tantrum until she restored my wording verbatim.  When in 1975 I recounted this to Ted Solotaroff, my editor on Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, he exclaimed, “My God, Robbins, you haven’t changed in 40 years!”

In any case, when for my fifth birthday I was given a Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs scrapbook, I began filling it not with pasted pictures but my dictated  --  and unedited!  --  stories.  The very first of those stories (the scrapbook still exists) was about a pilot whose plane crashed on a tiny desert island, a barren place whose sole inhabitant was a brown cow with yellow spots.  The cow had survived by learning to gastronomically process sand.  In time, it taught the pilot to eat sand, as well, and they lived there together, man and bovine, in friendship and good health.

What meaning can we take from this first attempt at literature?  That fortune favors those who improvise?  That we humans have much to learn from animals?  That we should insist on joy in spite of everything?  The fact that the pilot didn’t rather quickly butcher the cow and commence cooking it up (thereby insuring his starvation when the meat ran out), was that an object lesson in sustainability; a prophetic fable intended to encourage future generations to seek alternatives to the greedy, thoughtless consumption that one day would threaten to suicide the planet?  You’d have had to ask little Tommy Rotten  --  and he wasn’t talking.

From Tibetan Peach Pie by Tom Robbins. Copyright 2014 Tom Robbins. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.