Melanie/GTL has been at me for some time to read Tom Robbins, especially Even Cowgirls and also his memoir Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life (2014); based on the partly mistaken belief that we are of similar generations and footloosedness. Partly mistaken because Robbins (b. 1932) is almost exactly the same age as my mother. An excusable mistake maybe to one so young as Melanie.
Even Cowgirls get the Blues was Robbins’ second novel, published in 1976, making it one of a number of novels which were iconic to boomer hippies but whose writers were actually of the previous generation. Two others which come immediately to mind are Catch 22 (1961) written by Joseph Heller (1923-1999) and A Woman of the Future (1979) by David Ireland (1927-2022).
Boomer hippies’ motto was ‘Free Love’ which a) wasn’t practiced anywhere as much as we pretended, nor as much as it appears to be today; and b) meant guys getting everything they’d ever dreamed of without giving much back in return. Robbins’ and Ireland’s upbringings in earlier, stricter times shows, as they adopt ‘free love’ in their fiction with prurient glee.
I wrote to Melanie: This is a novel about young women and it’s focussed almost entirely on those things about young women that men get off on. What distresses me most – and that is not too strong a term – is that he describes Sissy at age 8 (!) casually giving in to being fingered by men car drivers, and later has her describing it (being molested) as a side benefit of hitchhiking.
Before I give Melanie a chance to respond, let me say that this is a postmodern novel with a number of threads all based around Sissy Hankshaw, born in industrial West Virginia in the ‘Eisenhower years’ (1950s), whose mutated thumbs make her a hitchhiking legend.
Melanie wrote back that she was “happy to think about Sissy and her thumbs and her sexcapades this afternoon [I had thought she might be weighed down by the pressures of schoolwork]. I also read an article about a lesbian who was born without a hand and how Cowgirls resonated so deeply with her when she was 17, but now she sees the flaws in it. Nonetheless, she still recommends the book to young women.“
Unfortunately, it’s a long time since Melanie read Even Cowgirls, and all she can say in response to my question is: “While I have completely erased from memory the sexual assault on Sissy when she was eight, later, when she is an adult hitchhiking, she is a willing sexual participant, and part of her confidence comes from her thumbs, which are categorized as a disability of which she is proud. In that sense, Robbins is ahead of his time.”
I can never hold the formal definitions of postmodernism in my head for very long, but this is a novel, though it is entirely about young women, which has a male voice, the voice of the author, taking the part of one of the minor characters, though I didn’t notice until he pointed it out; speaking to you the whole time, discussing what he is writing:
Or is the author trying to ease you into something here, trying to manipulate you a little bit when he ought to be just telling his story the way a good author should? Maybe that’s the case. Let’s drop it for now.
But look here a minute. Over here. Here’s a girl. She’s a nice girl. And she’s a pretty girl. he looks a bit like the young Princess Grace, had the young Princess Grace been left out in the rain for a year.
What’s that you say? Her thumbs? Yes, aren’t they magnificent? The word for her thumbs has got to be rococo – rocococototo tutti! by God.
and which has a certain playfulness in its premises – Sissy’s unreal thumbs; the two Clockworks, keeping geological time, which play no part in the story, yet are described at length; Sissy’s sometime employer (a gay guy), The Countess’s fortune built on his loathing of female odours, his feminine hygiene products empire, his beauty ranch in the Dakotas, the Rubber Rose; the rebellion, led by Bonanza Jelly Bean, which sees the ranch staffed entirely by young women who grew up wanting to be cowgirls, who deploy their unwashed bodies to chase off The Countess; a rebellion which takes a darker turn; and finally, the diversion of the migratory path of the endangered whooping crane who, initially attracted by the noisy lovemaking of Sissy and Bonanza Jelly Bean, are eventually persuaded to roost permanently on the shores of the ranch’s little lake.
What have I left out? Sissy’s off and on career modelling for The Countess; the Chink – a man of Japanese descent who has adopted ‘ironically’ the name given to him by the Indians who captured/rescued him when he escaped from wartime internment – who having been initiated into to one lot of Clockworks, has established his own in caves in the hills above the Rubber Ranch; Julian, an Ivy League educated Mohawk New Yorker who has renounced his Indian-ness just as Sissy is attemting to establish hers; who marries Sissy and then commits her to an institution; a pitched battle between the FBI and the cowgirls, over whooping cranes (!).
Of course, before the Hippies was the Beat generation, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Kerouac, and while they too were taken up by boomer students, and Burroughs at least, was writing into the 80s, they were clearly of the generation before. The bible of the Beats was Kerouac’s On the Road (1951/57). Sissy’s hitchhiking is an homage to Kerouac (by Robbins) and Robbins has Sissy and Kerouac spend a night together, off stage as it were, in a sunflower field from memory, and without ‘going all the way’.
I’m glad Melanie persuaded me to read this work, it’s fun, innovative and well done. And if Robbins shows his age, which he does, then that can be largely taken in good part too – except for implying that an 8 year old can give consent – like looking at the relatively innocent pictures in an old Playboy.
Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls get the Blues, first pub. 1976. 365pp. Audible version, 1999, read by Michael Nouri. 13 hrs