Jitterbug Perfume

Books are HEAVY. I discover this anew each time I move. Suddenly there are ten cartons of reading material that I’d convinced myself I couldn’t live without. Each weighs 50 pounds or more, and the older I get, the heavier they seem to weigh, and the more I reexamine their importance to my life. Chiropracter visits or not, I doubt I will ever learn to live without them. Yes, I know there are alternatives. Namely, digital devices like Amazon.com’s Kindle (or similar handheld iPod-type readers). Or a good old-fashioned library card. As for the electronic devices, it’s pretty simple: trade in your mouldering paperbacks and heavy-duty hardbacks for (literally) light-weight digital versions. I don’t own one of these things for the same reason I didn’t trade in my LP’s and CD’s for an iPod: there’s something missing from digital approximations. Not just the album cover art and liner notes–after all, you can download that stuff, too. But there’s a tangible reality that a mere digital file can never replicate. With books, it’s a love affair that goes deeper than words spelled out in ink on a piece of paper. In the same way that cybersex can’t replace the tangible feel of a woman, I will never be totally satisfied with digital approximations. Still…they ARE heavy, and I’m not talking about fat-bottomed girls making the rockin world go round here. So I’ve had some messy break-up’s over the years. I’ve had to reevaluate which books were important to me. Which books I am likely to revisit again and again, like a satisfying lover…and which one’s are just slutty paperback booty calls I probably won’t lay down with again unless I’m drunk and/or sitting on the toilet and need something a little heavier than an old Electronic Gamer or the morning paper.

     But among the contents of my pared-down library are a few old flings that won’t ever be kicked to the curb. First and foremost among them: Tom Robbins’ imcomparable Jitterbug Perfume. Like your first girlfriend, this novel has a special place in my heart. I’m re-reading it for the tenth (or so) time, and this first-edition sweetheart is starting to show her age. Though any review of this book–brief or lengthy, critical or descriptive–would fall far short of conveying its raw, sensual energy, one way to explain it is to share with you just how powerful the plot, insidious the imagery, and convincing the characterization has been on my life. In short, it is the most influential piece of fiction I’ve ever read, and I owe Robbins a debt I doubt I will ever be able to repay. A little over the top? Perhaps. After all, this is a man whom I last saw judging a cooking contest at a Spam Festival. And Jitterbug Perfume is a novel that features wonky characters like Priscilla The Genius Waitress (who was married to a famous South American accordian player and is searching for The Perfect Taco), Alobar (a 1000-year old chieftain from dark ages Bohemia), Marcel LeFevre (a French perfume executive who likes to wear whale masks), and Pan (the invisible but goat-odored Greek god whose turn-on’s include feta cheese, wineskins, and Nymphette sex). Even so, this book has given me solace during some pretty dark times in my life–and it has (more so than any other book) been responsible for my own love affair with words and writing. In a word, it’s a novel about immortality. Except that it’s also about lots of other things. Like following your bliss.

     Basically, the book follows the adventures of Alobar and Kudra (the Bohemian’s sexy Indian soulmate) as they run from death. And, as sex and death are in many ways inextricably linked (for example, the male orgasm has often been called “the little death”), we are told that plenty of sex is necessary for extending one’s life far beyond the normal human lifespan. The book follows Alobar (whose tribe puts their rulers to death by force-feeding them a poisoned egg at the first signs of aging) as he traipses across Europe to Hellas (Greece), where the rise of Christianity is weakening the smelly phallic power of Pan. Alobar continues east (after some Nymphette romping of his own), meeting Kudra for the first time as a small girl, horrified by the practice of suttee (in which a Hindu widow flings herself on her dead husband’s funeral pyre). Some years later, Alobar is reintroduced to Kudra in a Tibetan lamasery, where she has fled rather than submitting to suttee herself. The two become lovers, and set out to find a mysterious band of immortals known as the Bandaloop Doctors. The novel is a sensual epic, and a feast of words.

     I came across the book at the Hitching Post in Mentone, Alabama in 1985. I was 14. The Hitching Post is one of those stores that sells everything from used books to antiques. Mentone is a little mountain-top arts community, and I suspect one of the town’s more bohemian residents most have sold it to the Post’s owner in a pile of unwanted Reader’s Digests, unaware that the novel had gotten mixed in. After all, the book did not look like it had ever been read and was less than a year old at the time. However it came to be there, I regard my purchase of the novel as fate. After all, it’s not every day that one picks up (at random) a book that will change one’s life. At 14, I already knew that I wanted to be a writer. Reading this novel just made me sure of it. Throughout the years, I’ve shared the novel with several people. I’ve TRIED to share it with several more–but some people just won’t listen to good advice. It spoke to me in a language of poetry, in a dialect of vibrant and vivid words that painted bright pictures on the insides of my eyelids when I slip off to sleep. The book held such a special magic for me that I wouldn’t marry my girlfriend Jenny unless she agreed to read it. I wanted desperately for it to mean something to her the way it meant something to me. She DID make an effort to read it…but she never got through the first half of the novel. We’re now divorced. I’m not saying that her inability to “get” the book had anything to do with our marital problems. But…well, she wasn’t much of a reader, anyway. In the end, being married to a writer just wasn’t in the proverbial cards. Later, I shared the novel with Ruth Smith (aka Ruthless), the well-known dominatrix that performs with the X-rated heavy metal band, The Genitorturers. By this time, the novel’s cover was all but falling apart, and she kindly had a librarian repair it. Aside from my ex-wife and a beautiful dominatrix, I’ve shared the novel with several other people. Usually, the one’s who get through the book and take something of its magic with them are artsy people who like to create, in one way or another. Makes sense to me.

     The book lists four distinct methods for achieving immortality, each of them tied to one of the four elements: air, earth, water and fire. Air equates to special “Bandaloop breathing” exercises. This is described as both a physical act (breathing in a circular way, by taking in air through the nose and breathing out through the mouth in measured, deep rhythms), and by visualizing breathing in energy with each breath, and expelling toxins with each exhale. Earth is relative to food: the exercise here is to eat many small meals throughout the day, rather than large amounts at once. Alobar and Kudra are also eaters of beets…and this lowly red vegetable comes up again and again throughout the book. Hey, I told you it was a bit wonky. Water relates to bathing rituals. The idea is to soak in hot water, then get out of the tub for a few minutes to cool before repeating the process. Lowering the temperature of the blood is the key to this: in a hot bath, the blood comes to the surface, where it can be rapidly cooled when the bather steps out of the water. Finally: fire. Fire is sex. The Kama Sutra and a type of Tantric sex practice are mentioned…but the point is to fool your body into thinking it is young and virile (in other words, tricking the system into believing you are still in your sexual prime) by having sex on a (very) regular basis. Thus, the novel is full of sex, but not in a cheap Penthouse: Forum way. Sex is just part of the hedonistic calculus of a long and pleasurable life.  

     Now, I suppose I should admit that I often have a bit of trouble remembering that this novel is a work of fiction. I find myself breathing in that circular Bandaloop way…and I’ve a penchant for long, hot baths. Plus, now that I’m diabetic, eating many small meals throughout the day is encouraged by my doctor. And, of course, there’s the sex. I suppose I’m still searching for my Kudra. Blondes may be more fun…but dark, exotic Indian girls raise my blood pressure (in a good way).

     So is sex one of the pillars of a long, healthy life? Of course! Do you have any IDEA how many hundreds of millions of Viagra prescriptions have been filled, in the U.S. alone?  But the book brings up a point that geriatric research has wrestled with for a long time: quality vs. quantity of life. After all, what good does it do to live a long, long time if you’re miserable? The novel asks few questions, but suggests many answers. Foremost among them is to question the control mechanisms (as beat writer William Burroughs would call them) of religion and the military-industrial (or medical-industrial, perhaps) complex that seek to prepare us (through acceptance of our mortality spiritually, or sacrificing our bodies physically through violence) for the cessation of life. Robbin’s asks, instead, why we don’t deserve (and demand) the same immortality that has, historically, been attributed only to the divine (and, perhaps, to the divine right of our Emperors, Kings, popes and potentates).

     It’s a question that rings true…even in fiction.

     “Jitterbug” will likely piss you off if you’re one of the easily offended…but give it a chance. I think you’ll soon count it as one of the most memorable books you’ve ever read.


1 Comment

  1. Sounds inspiring

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