by Tom Robbins
“Physical intimacy is only a device for opening the floodgates of what really matters: words.” – Andrei Codrescu
I got into Fierce Invalids because a friend of the family lent it to me last spring. I’m not sure what it is about this strange book that made Cody think I had to read it, but I’m glad he did nonetheless. I think I was too young to “get” Tom Robbins when I first read his work back in high school. It took me a long time to appreciate a simply beautiful phrase… and Fierce Invalids is full of them. I don’t think I’ve ever dog-eared, underlined, or read aloud more sentences in any novel than I did this one. Sorry Cody, I promise I’ll erase all my markings before I return it! I just had to keep track of some of the wonderfully worded witticisms and criticisms so that I could attempt to do them justice in my review.
Fierce Invalids follows a CIA former-operative, Switters, who has a great appreciation for words and speaks many languages. He is an independent, self-proclaimed “angel” who listens to none but his grandmother, Maestra. Our first adventure with Mr. Switters begins when he agrees to accompany Maestra’s pet parrot down to Boquichicos, Peru to be released into the wild. The trip goes awry when he meets a peculiar Shaman who places a taboo on Switters, confining him to a wheelchair.
When he returns to Seattle, his work with the CIA is put on hold, permanently. After several failed attempts to court is 16 year-old stepsister, he grows restless and bored, and 100 pages later ends up in Syria at a convent full of excommunicated French nuns. This is the most interesting part of the story, in my opinion. As a bond is formed between Switters and the “nuns”, there is a complexity revealed in the relationship between religion, sex, belief, and freedom. These nuns are chalk full of contradictions – almost as much so as Switters himself.
While the plot of Fierce Invalids is frivolous and absurd, it is the prose that sets Tom Robbins apart. Every sentence is strung together with such wonderful intention that I could (and did on several occasions) open the book up to any page, give 10 seconds of context and then dive in with a friend, reading out loud and basking together in the beauty of the English language. Each line is poetry, and I recommend reading Robbins for that fact alone. The quote that I chose to begin this post is one that Robbins quotes within the novel, and I think it sums up both the character of Switters and the writing of Robbins nicely. In the end, the action-packed plot is irrelevant when it is but a gateway to what lies underneath: the most beautiful verbiage.