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Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates

Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates

4.7 63
by Tom Robbins

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Switters is a contradiction for all seasons: an anarchist who works for the government; a pacifist who carries a gun; a vegetarian who sops up ham gravy; a cyberwhiz who hates computers; a man who, though obsessed with the preservation of innocence, is aching to deflower his high-school-age stepsister (only to become equally enamored of a nun ten years his senior)


Switters is a contradiction for all seasons: an anarchist who works for the government; a pacifist who carries a gun; a vegetarian who sops up ham gravy; a cyberwhiz who hates computers; a man who, though obsessed with the preservation of innocence, is aching to deflower his high-school-age stepsister (only to become equally enamored of a nun ten years his senior). Yet there is nothing remotely wishy-washy about Switters. He doesn’t merely pack a pistol. He is a pistol. And as we dog Switters’s strangely elevated heels across four continents, in and out of love and danger, discovering in the process the “true” Third Secret of Fatima, we experience Tom Robbins—that fearless storyteller, spiritual renegade, and verbal break dancer—at the top of his game. On one level this is a fast-paced CIA adventure story with comic overtones; on another it’s a serious novel of ideas that brings the Big Picture into unexpected focus; but perhaps more than anything else, Fierce Invalids is a sexy celebration of language and life.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Superb."—New York Post

"As clever and witty a novel as anyone has written in a long time ... The plot is sustained by [Robbins's] usual virtuoso writing and brilliant flashes of insight. ... Robbins takes readers on a wild, delightful ride. ... A delight from beginning to end.-- Buffalo News

"Dangerous? Wicked? Forbidden? You bet. ... Pour yourself a bowl of chips and dig in."—Daily News, New York

"Robbins is a great writer ... and definitely a provocative rascal."—The Tennessean

"Whoever said truth is stranger than fiction never read a Tom Robbins novel. ... Clever, creative, and witty, Robbins tosses off impassioned observations like handfuls of flower petals."—San Diego Union-Tribune

The Imaginary Invalid

Like many of his characters, Tom Robbins appears to thrive on contradictory stimuli. His last novel, Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas, set its account of spiritual enlightenment and extraterrestrial influences against the credibly rendered backdrop of a faltering stock exchange. His latest, Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates, is also concerned with the quest for enlightenment but chooses for its hero a renegade operative for that supremely unenlightened, reflexively conservative institution, the Central Intelligence Agency.

The operative in question is named, simply, Switters, and he gives new meaning to the phrase "loose cannon." Switters, along with a number of his fellow agents, sees himself as an "angel," a subversive element dedicated to opposing the "cowboys" of the CIA, those zealots who have done so much damage in the name of our national interests. A born anarchist, Switters meditates, indulges in mind-altering substances, reads and rereads Finnegans Wake, and obsessively ponders the fate of language in the cybernetic future that is rapidly taking shape around us. He is the antithesis of such traditional CIA employees as his pompous—and perfectly named—superior, Mayflower Cabot Fitzgerald.

Fierce Invalids begins when Switters, who is bound for Peru on Company business, agrees to perform an act of mercy for his octogenarian grandmother, who wants him to return her pet—an aging parrot named Sailor Boy—to its ancestral home in the Amazon rain forest. Switters's mission is interrupted when a British ethnographer—R. Potney Smithe—introduces him to a tribal shaman named, variously, End of Time and Today is Tomorrow, whose head is shaped exactly like a pyramid, and who believes that laughter is one of the animating forces of the universe. Switters spends a single hallucinatory night in End of Time's company, in the course of which he eats his grandmother's parrot and takes a drug-induced trip through "the Hallways of Always," where the secrets of the cosmos reside. In the dazed aftermath of revelation, he learns that arcane knowledge exacts a heavy price. From that day forward, Switters is forbidden—on literal penalty of death—to rest his feet on solid ground.

That is merely the beginning of this wild, unsummarizable tale, a contemporary picaresque in which Switters travels—sometimes by wheelchair, sometimes with the aid of stilts—from one continent to another, finding love, adventure, and spiritual fulfillment as he attempts to come to terms with the magically altered circumstances of his life. His travels take him from Peru to Seattle, from Seattle to Syria, and from Syria to a climactic encounter in Vatican City. Along the way, he encounters a number of bona fide miracles, meets the model for a famous nude portrait by Henri Matisse, uncovers the lost prophecy of the Lady of Fatima, and attempts—with varying degrees of success—to seduce both his 16-year-old stepsister, Suzy, and a 46-year-old cloistered nun named Domino Thiry (pun most definitely intended).

As in most of Robbins's novels, the rambling narrative is designed primarily to accommodate the author's steady stream of observations on the quality of life at the tail end of the 20th century. The result is a baroque, gently didactic novel in which Robbins comments, with wit, acuity, and an increasing sense of personal urgency, on the inadequacy of our political and religious institutions, on the public and private sources of our prevailing spiritual malaise, and on our willing submission to the dictates of a ravenous consumer culture. In the face of all these things, Robbins—like his fictional Peruvian shaman—continues to insist on the primal power of laughter and continues to believe that joy is possible, that dullness of spirit is the one unforgivable sin.

In Fierce Invalids, as in his earlier novels, Robbins's philosophy of joie de vivre is endlessly reflected in the moment-to-moment deployment of his lush, intricate style. There are no dead spaces in a Robbins novel, no drab or perfunctory phrases. Every sentence carries its weight. Every sentence adds something distinctive to the overall ambience of the narrative. Here, for example, is a brief reflection on the quiet pleasures of Seattle's weather:

[Switters] liked its subtle, muted qualities, and the landscape that those qualities encouraged if not engendered: vistas that seemed to have been sketched with a sumi brush dipped in quicksilver and green tea...
And here is a smoke ring, its evanescence captured forever:
He expelled a dancing doughnut of smoke. Like every smoke ring ever blown—like smoke, in general—it bounced in the air like the bastard baby of chemistry and cartooning.
Fierce Invalids is animated throughout by the "mindful playfulness" that is Robbins's dominant aesthetic characteristic. While it is unlikely to win over his numerous detractors (who will doubtless decry its relentless—and deliberate—"self-indulgence"), it will surely strike his many admirers as cause for celebration. Tom Robbins is a genuine original, a philosopher clown whose skewed perspective is both startling and illuminating. Like the best of his earlier books, Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates is humane, funny, and deeply adventurous fiction, a vibrantly comic refutation of the angst-ridden spirit of the age.

—Bill Sheehan

Switters, the addled hero of Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates, practically bursts off the page....
Barnes & Noble Guide to New Fiction
Best-selling author Robbins gets his two cents in on every hackneyed social evil from advertising to dogmatism in his latest wacky, wit-filled work. This latest tale of whimsy introduces a pot-smoking, teenager-shagging CIA agent who travels the globe in hopes of shaking a South American shaman's curse.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Fans of Robbins (Jitterbug Perfume; Still Life with Woodpecker) will be delighted to find that his first book in almost six years contains many of the elements they have come to expect from this imaginative author. Sex, sedition and similes abound in a tale of loves both indictable and divine. Unlike Robbins's previous work, however, the novel's story line, though typically eclectic, feels contrived. Switters, the protagonist, is an errand boy for the CIA, a secret lover of Broadway show tunes and a pedophile. On assignment in Peru (he has been ordered to verify the philosophical commitment of a new CIA recruit), Switters encounters a Kandakandero medicine man who gives him mind-altering drugs and wisdom, but in exchange inflicts a curse: if Switters's feet ever touch the ground, he will be struck dead instantly. So Switters spends the rest of the novel in a wheelchair, although this in no way slows him down. He returns to Seattle, chases after his 16-year-old stepsister and numerous art students, then embarks on a mission to Syria to sell gas masks to Kurds; there, he beds a nun who even so remains a virgin. In true Robbins style, the writing throughout is lush and sexy, containing a great deal of witty social and political commentary. But this time around, his story fails to catch hold until too far into the text. And although Robbins's signature prose is in effect here--he mentions, for example, "a pink wink of panty"--he leaves too many loose ends dangling.
Library Journal
A witch doctor with a pyramid-shaped head, an aged parrot whose only words are "People of zee wurl, relax," and an isolated band of nuns that possesses the last remaining copy of the Virgin of Fatima's mysterious third prophecy all figure into Robbins's latest seriocomic foray. Wheelchair-bound Switters, the "fierce invalid" of the title, is a wisecracking CIA operative and James Joyce aficionado. While in South America meeting a new recruit, he journeys to the Amazon, where a witchdoctor places a bizarre curse on him: he will die immediately if his feet ever touch the ground. Switters takes on a mission to the Middle East for a renegade ex-agent. Sidetracked in the Syrian Desert, he forms an unlikely alliance with the nuns as they battle the Vatican for ownership of the prophecy. Best-selling author Robbins (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues) balances the comic and the cosmic much as a juggler might balance a kitchen chair on a spoon. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 2/1/00.]--Lawrence Rungren, Merrimack Valley Lib. Consortium, Andover, MA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
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Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 8.21(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Lima, Peru
October 1997

The naked parrot looked like a human fetus spliced onto a kosher chicken. It was so old it had lost every single one of its feathers, even its pinfeathers, and its bumpy, jaundiced skin was latticed by a network of rubbery blue veins.

"Pathological," muttered Switters, meaning not simply the parrot but the whole scene, including the shrunken old woman in whose footsteps the bird doggedly followed as she moved about the darkened villa. The parrot's scabrous claws made a dry, scraping noise as they fought for purchase on the terra-cotta floor tiles, and when, periodically, the creature lost its footing and skidded an inch or two, it issued a squawk so quavery and feeble that it sounded as if it were being petted by the Boston Strangler. Each time it squawked, the crone clucked, whether in sympathy or disapproval one could not tell, for she never turned to her devoted little companion but wandered aimlessly from one piece of ancient wooden furniture to another in her amorphous black dress.

Switters feigned appreciation, but he was secretly repulsed, all the more so because Juan Carlos, who stood beside him on the patio, also spying in the widow's windows, was beaming with pride and satisfaction. Switters slapped at the mosquitoes that perforated his torso and cursed every hair on that hand of Fate that had snatched him into South too-goddamn-vivid America.

Boquichicos, Peru
November 1997

Attracted by the lamplight that seeped through the louvers, a mammoth moth beat against the shutters like a storm. Switters watched it with some fascination as he waited for the boys to bring his luggage up from the river. That moth was no butterfly, that was certain. It was a night animal, and it had a night animal's mystery.

Butterflies were delicate and gossamer, but this moth possessed strength and weight. Its heavy wings were powdered like the face of an old actress. Butterflies were presumed to be carefree, moths were slaves to a fiery obsession. Butterflies seemed innocuous, moths somehow...erotic. The dust of the moth was a sexual dust. The twitch of the moth was a sexual twitch. Suddenly Switters touched his throat and moaned. He moaned because it occurred to him how much the moth resembled a clitoris with wings.


There were grunts on the path behind him, and Inti emerged from the forest bearing, somewhat apprehensively, Switters's crocodile-skin valise. In a moment the other two boys appeared with the rest of his gear. It was time to review accommodations in the Hotel Boquichicos. He dreaded what he might find behind its shuttered windows, its double-screened doors, but he motioned for the boys to follow him in. "Let's go. This insect--" He nodded at the great moth that, fan though it might, was unable to stir the steaming green broth that in the Amazon often substitutes for air. "This insect is making me feel--" Switters hesitated to utter the word, even though he knew Inti could understand no more than a dozen simple syllables of English. "This insect is making me feel libidinous."

Meet the Author

Tom Robbins has been called “a vital natural resource” by The Oregonian, “one of the wildest and most entertaining novelists in the world” by the Financial Times of London, and “the most dangerous writer in the world today” by Fernanda Pivano of Italy’s Corriere della Sera. A Southerner by birth, Robbins has lived in and around Seattle since 1962.

Brief Biography

LaConner, Washington
Date of Birth:
July 22, 1936
Place of Birth:
Blowing Rock, North Carolina

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Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 64 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was the first Robbins novel I'd read since Jitterbug Perfume in 1985. I loved each of his first four novels, and JP seemed a kind of summary or clarification of the ideas presented in those first four, leading me to conclude that Robbins had said all he had to say. I still think that to a degree, yet Fierce Invalids offers something fresh in that it takes those same ideas, that same mystical/spiritual approach to the puzzle of human existence, and applies them to a world that has totally changed since JP and its predecessors. Although published 16 years after Jitterbug in 2000, Fierce Invalids takes place in the world we still inhabit in 2013 rather than the 60s-70s world of the first four novels. Seeing how Robbins' concerns play out in today's world was the most interesting aspect of this novel for me. It certainly seems more difficult today to see things from that spiritual/look-for-the-reality-behind-reality point of view. As a result, I would agree with a previous reviewer who says the writing style seems forced at points, and the polemical passages too often seem like set speeches instead of dialogue that arises naturally from the story. Despite these shortcomings. however, Fierce Invalids left me feeling like I'd reconnected with a part of myself I'd almost lost over the past 30 years, and I think the world in general is in that same state. There is a wisdom here that the 21st century needs, and if the execution seems rough in places it's only because Robbins is exploring how what the questers of the early novels learned can be applied in order to salvage something -- our humanity, perhaps? -- from the mess we have now. The light-dark dualism of Fierce Invalids is perfectly reflective of those today seeking to find common ground between what's called Right and Left to form a more sane world. I'm thinking of people like Julian Assange, Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich, Edward Snowden, maybe even Pope Francis. Finally, besides being relevant and hilarious, I doubt anyone will ever come up with a better definition of ADHD than Robbins' "extrapolatory zigzag."
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is intoxicating, addicting, hilarious, thought provoking, and honest. I only wish that there was an entire series following Switters as I want to never stop reading this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Switters is a credit to his employers, his readers and his grandmother. Tom why can`t you be more prolific? One of those writers who churns out 100 books before retirement - or at least dies trying. My only consolation for your meagre (in numerical terms) output is at the fact that this one is perfect. I`ll settle for that.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Jitterbug may be TR's best book. But, no doubt, Switters his finest creation. Indiana Jones meets McMurphy from Cuckoo's Nest! As far as bad Bobby Case goes...no precedent exists. The ending may let down but the episode in the South American jungle - featuring the pomey anthropologist, the pyramid headed soothsayer and Switters in a hammock - perhaps the funniest ever put to paper. Don't buy this book if you are bent on discovering the Colonel's secret recipe. Otherwise...
Guest More than 1 year ago
The novel is about Switters, an anarchist CIA operative who is caught up in a superstitious medley of confusion when he ventures deep into the jungle of South America to free his grandmother's easy-going parrot. The adventure continues to three other continents, following Switters as he finds trouble in every form imaginable. Robbins has outdone himself again, proving the best novels are those with endless supplies of political and religious maxims. Not since Fight Club has humor and philosophy combined to produce such a bold work of literature. Robbins is an intelligent scoundrel who crafts each sentence to fit his beautiful creation: Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates.
Guest More than 1 year ago
this is probably the best book for anyone who loves the contradictive nature of mankind and the usless knowledge possesed by all.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I'm a HUGE Tom Robbins fan...this HAS to be the best I've read so far. My very open-minded 82 year old father borrowed this book...and LOVED IT!
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