Tom Robbins’ “Jitterbug Perfume” might be a surprising book to see reviewed on the faith and values website. But I think it is quite appropriate.
His 1984 opus about immortality – or ultimately mortality – follows two
people who decide not to die and their friend Pan, the goat god.
The book’s central question is: What is it about death that we find so terrifying?
There was the wonderful joke circulating several years ago about the Pope traveling in an armored car. The joke was if he was scared to die – what did that say to the rest of us?
Robbins’ readers are familiar with his lyric use of word play that comes alive on the page. Through Alobar and Kudra seeking immortality, Robbins does ask questions about what real immortality is?
Is it avoiding death? Or is it making a lasting contribution to society for which you will be remembered ever after?
Alobar and Kudra have found the secret to avoiding death through a series of breathing exercises, diet and bathing rituals- all of which sound a lot like yoga. “Jitterbug Perfume” explores many of the questions westerners have about eastern philosophy and its realistic applications while weaving in healthy doses of comparative mythology.
In the book, deities survive only as long as people believe in them, so after several thousand years, when Pan’s following has faded, people can’t see him anymore. They can only smell him. Or to adapt from General Douglas MacArthur, another person concerned with the questions of immortality or mortality – “Old Gods never die; they just fade away.”
As with many books from this period of Robbins’ writing, lust and embracing our visceral desires plays a big role in not only the character’s lives but their ultimate successes or failures in their quest. The presence of Pan, a deity who encouraged and enjoyed such celebrations himself, as a main character in this book also leads to comparisons about how modern Protestants interpret not only deity, but also the expected code of behavior by that deity and its followers.
Robbins is an unabashed hedonist in both his writing and his lifestyle. In “Jitterbug Perfume,” that shines through with a beautiful and delicate passion. Many of his books celebrate mythologies and cosmologies different than the monotheistic world he and many of his readers grew up in. He time travels across the page to visit places he would like to see and many of us never imagined were possible.
What is the life of an old Greek God like in late 20th century New Orleans? It’s not a question that keeps many people up at night, but it’s a fascinating one to answer.
For an affirming, delightful and entirely sideways look at this planet through the last 1,000 years, pick up a copy of “Jitterbug Perfume.”