Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates by Tom Robbins
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.
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.
Date of Birth:
July 22, 1936
Place of Birth:
Blowing Rock, North Carolina
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."
Q: Fierce Invalids from Hot Climates is an unusual title. How did you come up with it? A: Actually, I excerpted it from a poem by the legendary French literary rebel Arthur Rimbaud. While it has quite literal significance within the context of my plot, it has wider meanings, as well. All of us who've managed to survive intense love affairs, political confrontations, or periods of personal debauchery might be said to be fierce invalids home from hot climates.
Q: Is that what the new novel is about? A: It's about the CIA, the Virgin Mary, and the man who loves, hates, and redefines them both.
Q: What else? A: It's about the possibility in today's world of combining a life of freewheeling sensuality and high adventure with a life of serenity, deep wisdom, and full consciousness.
Q: Could you be more specific? A: Well, it's about a maverick secret agent and how he finds innocence and fun in a corrupt and dangerous world, has a deadly curse put on him, flirts with spiritual enlightenment, and learns to appreciate older women. That's as specific as I'm prepared to get. It's not that I'm being coy; I just don't want to spoil any surprises for the reader. I mean, aren't you sick of those film previews that give so much away you feel like you've already seen the movie twice? In my novels, the story line is so tightly integrated with the philosophy and the style (the language, itself) that to separate any one of those elements from the other two is to paint a false picture. Plot details taken out of context can seem "zany" (God, how I've come to dislike that word!), whereas, in point of fact, in the tapestry of the book, they not only make perfect sense but can perhaps cast an illuminating light on the nature of reality and what passes for the human condition.
Q: How does Fierce Invalids differ from your previous six novels? A: It has a little less estrogen and a little more testosterone. As usual in my work, there are some strong female characters, but the main protagonist is a man. A rascally, contradictory, 21st-century Renaissance man.
Q: Why in the past have you usually favored female protagonists? A: All my life I've cherished the company of females. It takes me 36 to 42 months to complete a novel. If you're going to be shut up in a room with someone every day for three years, it might as well be with someone whose company you enjoy. Equally important is the fact that employing women as my primary protagonists has allowed me to step outside of myself far more easily than were I to look at events from a masculine perspective -- and I'll go to almost any length to avoid the stain of autobiography.
Q: You say your work is not autobiographical, and it certainly doesn't fit into any of the genre categories. How would you describe it, then? A: It's a hallucinogen, an aphrodisiac, a mood elevator, an intellectual garage-door opener, and a metaphysical trash compactor: It'll do everything except rotate your tires.
Q: You've often mentioned your interest in Zen, Taoism, Tantra, and other Asian philosophies, but you obviously are also fascinated with American pop culture. A: There's a link there, really. With the exception of Tantric Hinduism, every religious system in the modern world has denied and suppressed sensuality. Yet sensual energy is the most powerful energy we as individuals possess. Tantric saints had the genius and the guts to exploit that energy for spiritual purposes. Food, drink, drugs, music, art, poetry, and especially sex, are used in Tantra in a religious manner. Tantrikas perfect the techniques of sensual pleasure and use the energy released as fuel for their God-bound vehicle, their rocket ride to enlightenment. Pop culture, in somewhat the same way, may be exploited for serious purposes. American pop has great energy, humor, vitality, and charm. It baffles me that so many serious novelists are reluctant to take advantage of that. When it comes to revitalizing the human spirit, sensitizing experience, and marrying a sense of wonder to the terrible truth, pop culture has infinitely more literary potential than, say, bad marriages, abusive childhoods, and psychopathic violence -- the favorite subjects of the academic and the dour.
Q: When and why did you start writing? A: I started before I was old enough to know any better. My muse was a cradle robber, a child molester. She seduced an innocent, blue-eyed, towheaded, preliterate tot and turned him into a paragraph junkie. As a child, I wrote countless stories. In adolescence, I stopped creating fiction and channeled all that energy into basketball and cheerleaders, still two of my favorite things. Later, I expanded my enthusiasms to include journalism, art, mythology, psychedelic drugs, la belle époque, and various Asian schools of philosophy. Then, when I was about 32, I ran into my old love, Mademoiselle Fiction, and we have been inseparable ever since.
Q: What were you like as a child? A: Well, I was all the Simpson siblings rolled into one. Like Bart Simpson, I was a rambunctious little troublemaker. At the same time, like Lisa, I was a highly sensitive, creative, artistic type. There was something of Maggie in me, as well, but I can't quite put my finger on it. There's probably a lot of the Simpson kids in me still.
Q: At what point do you think you are in your career? A: Beats me. I've never considered that I have a career. I have a careen.
Q: What kind of books do you like to read? A: In terms of subject matter, my literary taste is wildly eclectic (although I could survive quite nicely for several more lifetimes without reading another coming-of-age novel or neurotic saga of a dysfunctional family). The one thing I demand of an author is that he or she cares -- really cares -- about language. In general, I prefer the daring to the cautious, the poetic to the prosaic, the imaginative to the literal, the upbeat to the dreary, the quirky to the predictable, the comic to the sober, and the erotic to the chaste.
Q: How does it feel to be named one of "The 100 Best Writers of the 20th Century" by Writer's Digest magazine? A: I'm sincerely flattered, but I'm old enough to know that if you allow yourself to puff up over your accolades, you're going to have to pay with your soul. Frankly, I was more excited when the celebrated Italian critic, Fernanda Pivano, called me "the most dangerous writer in the world today."
Q: What did she mean by that? A: Well, I know she intended it as a compliment. According to Signora Pivano, what I've been saying in my work is that love and beauty and freedom are all that matter in life and that everything else is just a joke. For the self-satisfied, the money-crazed, and the unreflective, I suppose that is a dangerous message. The signora may be on to something. I admit I wouldn't mind pulling the rug out from under readers in such a way as to fracture their belief systems -- but only if it leaves them feeling better than ever about simply being alive.
Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates 4.7 out of 5based on
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."
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.
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.
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...
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.
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.
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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