DH: John Vorhaus is playing the role of the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come in our new series about when writers fell in love with books. His brilliantly manic suspense novel, California Roll,about grifters who try to out-grift each other, will be covered on Three Guys early next year. I had trashed four galleys in a row after trying to read page 99 of each. When I came to page 99 of California Roll, I knew I had to read the whole thing. I believe that JV wrote this post while sitting in Moscow traffic. He leads the writing team of the Russian version of Married with Children, making the world safe for situation comedy. He said he was glad that he worked especially hard on page 99 of California Roll.
EVEN COWGIRLS TURN ME ON by John Vorhaus
It was the summer of 1977. Like every other college graduate in America, I was in Europe. I hitchhiked and Eurail-passed the length and breadth of the continent, from East Berlin to the west coast of Ireland, from the tip of Sicily to just inside the Arctic Circle. With all that traveling, of course, I often had time on my hands, and always needed something to read, and therefore engaged in avid and active book swaps with anyone who happened to have something in English I hadn’t already burned through. Thus it was that the summer’s most popular book, Tom Robbins’ Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, fell into my hands. Like everyone else I knew (like everyone I’ve ever known who’s read the book), I was instantly and totally ensorcelled by Robbins’ tale of big-thumbed Sissy Hankshaw, plus all the others: Bonanza Jellybean, the Chink, the Countess, and the estimable Dr. Robbins himself. More than that, I was captivated by Robbins’ command of the language; man, could the dude craft sentences. He did it with grace, style, and outrageous humor. It was this last part that was such a revelation to me. I’d enjoyed the jaundiced ironies of Catcher in the Rye and Catch-22, but until I read Tom Robbins, I didn’t know there really was such a thing as a flat-out funny comic novel. I didn’t even know you could do that. But when I read of Sissy’s mother manipulating her father by “turning the vaginal wrench,” I became a fan for life.
As a writer who lacked faith in his own craft, I soon entered the singer/songwriter phase of my career. It was an awkward place for me. I could write songs well enough, but I couldn’t really sing or play guitar, and after five years hard at it, I finally figured that part out, and moved on to other things: situation comedies and screenplays; how-to books on writing and poker; novels at last. But I never forgot Tom Robbins, and never aspired to anything less than his rapier turn of phrase. In fairness, I’ve yet to read any Robbins tome that I enjoyed as much as Cowgirls. I think that has less to do with his abilities than with where I was when I first met him. I was on the road, living the Euro-vagabond dream of my generation. Conflating my own hitchhiking adventures with Sissy Hankshaw’s brought me closer to a character in a novel than I’d ever been before; closer, perhaps, than I’ve ever been with any figment of a writer’s imagination, bar my own. But I still have time for Tom Robbins, and I religiously read every new word he writes. I owe him that debt. He introduced me to the possibilities of the comic novel, and though it took me more than a generation, and an eventful life’s journey to realize them for myself, I’m realizing them at last. I don’t imagine myself any sort of heir to Tom Robbins, but I strive to be worthy to wave the banner of his style.
When I traveled through Europe in 1977, I did so with the full fear that I might never get back there again. Well, I’ve been blessed. My “other” job as a creative consultant for television and film has taken me to Europe dozens of times. Also Australia, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Jamaica, Malaysia, and Russia. I’m in Russia right now (like, even as I write these words), running the writing staff of the Russian version of Married… with Children. You can follow that adventure at www.radarenterprizes.com/blog, and I welcome you to do so. Stop by and say hi! I, meanwhile, have suddenly gotten the bright idea to go to the English language bookstore here in Moscow and see if I can find a copy of Cowgirls. I’ve read it probably ten times since the first time, but no time in the past five years or so. I’ve always gotten something out of those re-reads, and it occurs to me that I’m overdue for a dose. How about you? Have you read (or lately re-read) Even Cowgirls Get the Blues? If not, you ought. It’s an inspiring, enlightening, and laugh-out-loud funny read. If I could half turn a phrase like Tom Robbins, I’d be a satisfied man indeed.