First title in my 2022 challenge, and a much needed re-read.
Still Life with Woodpecker
By Tom Robbins, 1980
When I got out of high school I was not very happy. The fact is, for a fair chunk of the duration of my high school years, certainly for the last three years I had been – or I had thought I was being – very popular.
Everybody was studying on copies of my class notes, everybody wanted a hand when tests were drawing near. There were afternoons I spent hours on the phone – these were the ‘80s, remember, we had landlines then. A lot of my school mates wanted to read my stories – that I churned out on my mother’s old Olivetti Lettera 32.
Then high school ended, and I was alone.
Turns out I had not been popular, I had just been useful.
I still had my stories, and I kept writing, but I no longer had anyone willing to read my stuff. My university colleagues were supremely dismissive. They were not interested in stories, most certainly not in science fiction and fantasy and adventure stories.
I was alone.
And my writing stopped working.
Mind you, I was 19 and I was very bad, but now I was bad and completely stuck.
It was at this point that I found a paperback copy of Still LIfe with Woodpecker, on the shelves of the Libreria Luxemburg, in Turin.
The e third novel of the man that Italian writer and translator Fernanda Pivano had called “the most dangerous writer in the world”, Still Life with Woodpecker is a book you need before you hit twenty.
At least, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
After twenty, most of us are too fucking cynical to really enjoy this book, and, say, before 17, we are not mature enough.
So I was lucky, and I hit the Woodpecker just at the right time.
This is a novel, of course.
A fantasy of sorts, a love story that takes place in a pack of Camels, and deals with issues like what is the purpose of the moon, and how to make love stay. It features an outlaw (not a criminal, the difference thereof is discussed in the text) and a princess.
It features UFOs and drug smugglers, the CIA and terrorism. It deals with environmentalism, and social justice.
It also features extensive dialogs between the author and his typewriter – it even mentions Olivetti, saying it’s a juggler’s name – and it also includes a lot of lists: the most famous redheads, the main character’s favorite home-made explosives recipes…
When I found it, and read it twice, it was exactly the book that I needed. It helped me with my sudden sense of isolation and also it helped with my writing.
Because this, THIS was what I wanted to do when I wrote my stories – Robbins’ language is absolutely dazzling, his wit and his intelligence are as sharp as a razor, and he’s telling you “you think language is not fluid enough to give off sparks, kid? Well, hold my beer…”
Still life with woodpecker is a novel by an author that has complete control over his language, one that can make his words do what he needs.
THIS is what I was looking for at 19, and I am still looking for now.
So it feels like a good idea to start this series of posts, and this new year, with a book that, quite simply, saved my life. I have read almost everything that Robbins wrote before and after, and I am … no, not a fan.
I am a grateful reader.
The woodpecker, I read it every once in a while, when I want to remember that it can be done, and how beautiful it is when it works.
So maybe you might want to check it out.
Maybe you’re alone, and a little lost.
Maybe you no longer have faith in your ability to write.
Maybe you are between 17 and 20, somewhere inside of you.
If any of this applies, this is a book you might enjoy.