Jitterbug Perfume

By Tom Robbins

71 ratings - 4.21* vote

Jitterbug Perfume is an epic, which is to say, it begins in the forests of ancient Bohemia and doesn't conclude until nine o'clock tonight [Paris time]. It is a saga, as well. A saga must have a hero, and the hero of this one is a janitor with a missing bottle. The bottle is blue, very, very old, and embossed with the image of a goat-horned god. If the liquid in the bottle Jitterbug Perfume is an epic, which is to say, it begins in the forests of ancient Bohemia and doesn't conclude

... more

Book details

Paperback, 342 pages
April 9th 2001 by No Exit Press

(first published December 1984)

Original Title
Jitterbug Perfume
ISBN
1842430351 (ISBN13: 9781842430354)
Edition Language
English

Community Reviews

Trin

Well, I officially don’t get Tom Robbins. People have recommended him on the basis of comparisons to Douglas Adams, but Adams is, you know, funny. Here’s what seems to pass for humor in a Tom Robbins novel: beets (the very existence of), a woman getting stung in a delicate place by a bee, and lesbians (the very existence of). And here’s the kind of prose you can look forward to:

The sky, layered with thin altostratus clouds and smog, appeared to reflect human suffering and failed to awaken in Claude visions of paradise. (Page 13)

The sky was a velvety black paw pressing on the white landscape with a feline delicacy, stars flying like sparks from its fur. (Page 36)

With the absence of the cloud cover that normally caused the sky over Seattle to resemble cottage cheese that had been dragged nine miles behind a cement truck, the city, for the first time in memory, would have an unobstructed view of one of nature’s most mystical spectacles. (Page 47)

When Claude glanced at the sky, he saw that the text of Les Miserables had been painted over by Salvador Dali. The sun was so round and glossy and black that had it a figure eight on it, well, it would have validated a lot of long-standing philosophical and theological complaints, underlining once and for all just where we earthlings sit on the cosmic pool table. (Page 81)

A few flat clouds folded themselves like crepes over fillings of apricot sky. Pompadours of supper-time smoke billowed from chimneys, separating into girlish pigtails as the breeze combed them out, above the slate rooftops. Chestnut blossoms, weary from having been admired all day, wore faint smiles of anticipation. (Page 201)

And of course:

Above Seattle, the many-buttocked sky continued to grind. (Page 312)

And that’s just me culling annoying descriptions of the sky. Imagine 350 dense, unrelenting pages of this crap. I never thought a book about immortality—one of my favorite subjects—could ever inspire in me such a desperate desire for it all to please just end.

Madeleine

Before I knew that magical realism was a thing, I loved Tom Robbins. Before I fell hard for postmodernism, I fell for Tom Robbins. Before I had developed a literary taste that I can be proud of, there was the beacon of hope for me that is Tom Robbins.

There aren’t many things I loved in high school that I still love now: Listening to the same Dashboard Confessional CD on infinite repeat, running to Livejournal to unselfconsciously document every oh-so-significant spike in my emotional temperature and wearing brightly colored tights under fishnet stockings are all things I’ve let slip into the past but Robbins has seen me through all the milestones and minutia of my teenage and twentysomething years.

Jitterbug Perfume was not my first foray into the weirdly wonderful and wonderfully weird worlds that Robbins builds from the gossamer threads of imagination unbound (I'm actually not sure which one popped my Robbins cherry but I do know I first read this one during my last summer of college when I was a live-in nanny -- which was a surprisingly good summer for bibliomania, actually). It is, along with Skinny Legs and All, tied for the honor of being my favorite of his, and both novels are longtime mainstays of my desert-island reading list. So when my craving for Robbins got to be too demanding to be delayed any longer and the heady of perfume of spring was calling too loudly for the only companion novel that successfully captured the power of scent in words, I knew I could rely on this book to deliver everything I needed and more.

It is tempting (like, it is taking an inordinate amount of self-control to fight the impulse) to say something about how beets are the beating heart of this novel but that's only because I have a sick, unironic penchant for puns. Really, this is a story that spans 1,000 years (or about as long as I've been staring at the computer screen while waiting for this review to write itself C'MON BOOZE LUBRICATE MY THOUGHT PROCESS NOW) and connects Seattle to New Orleans to Paris to Bohemia of yore with the wafting of a fragrance. There's also a very loyal swarm of bees serving as the halo a modern-day Christ figure would wear and Pan comes and goes to prove that man creates and destroys gods with a fury and jealously no spiritual figurehead would ever dare to act on. And a fallen king who proves that love can last more than a lifetime and winds up behind bars in the process (if that's not a metaphor for modern times, I don't know what is).


...


You know, I thought a little liquid creativity would help me here but it is just so damn hard to express how much and why I love this book and how excited I am that, almost eight years later, it is actually even better than I remembered. This is so much more than beautifully playful prose, a caution against taking oneself too seriously lest you forget to stop and smell the beet pollen, more inventively evocative metaphors than a whole hockey team could shake some really long sticks at -- just to mention a few of the things that established my seemingly eternal entrenchment in the Tom Robbins fan club so many years ago. That's not to say that I wasn't thoroughly tickled by those elements this time around but the more subtle aspects of the storytelling were what really got to me during this most recent reading.

This book is a little disarming because it addresses so many issues, Big Ticket and otherwise -- life, death, love, immortality and the conflicted yearning for it, what happens on the other side of death, the individual vs. societal norms, the search for perfection, scientific pursuits, religion (and the lack thereof) -- in such a lighthearted, unexpectedly connected way that its moments of seriousness pack a brutal but enlightening punch. A character who triumphs over death for a good millennium is bound to lose more than he gains in his willful longevity, and his moments of introspective contemplation are a little hard to watch unfold, especially as some of the other characters are revealed to be carrying around the kind of sadnesses that compel them to keep moving; I can now appreciate that there is a definite Pynchonian element of contrasting goofiness of the highest order against some truly sobering sorrows to maximize the impact of each emotional extreme.

I was a little worried that, like so many things I've outgrown, my love of Robbins's unique storytelling might now be a thing of the past tense. But he so intricately layers and pieces together so much in his books that there is plenty to notice for a first time (like how Jitterbug Perfume really does follow the format of a hero's journey, complete with help of and hindrances from mythical beings, a never-say-die determination to reach the finish line, the occasional occurrence of wine-dark liquids, and even a visit from a cyclops) and even more to rediscover anew.

Kelly

Told to read this by my boyfriend who declared that I NEEDED to read this book to understand him, I am now disgusted and reconsidering my relationship. Ok, I'm kidding, but I take solace in the fact he read this book in high school.

Oddly enough, my best friend also said this is her favorite book.

Either I'm surprised to discover I'm a prude, or Robbins wastes way too much of a promising book on misogynistic fantasies of all women as nymphomaniacs who live and breathe to seduce and pleasure their usually significantly older male partners. The only relationship that didn't annoy me was between Priscilla and Ricki, and even that one was sexually focused. I don't mind reading about sex, in fact I rather enjoy it if done tastefully, but I feel that the overwhelming sexual descriptions took away from the substance of Robbins' ideas. I found myself rolling my eyes throughout most of it and was even embarassed when a man in a plane commented on my book choice, noting that another author he reads is "like Tom Robbins if he had a heart."

I give it two stars because Robbins is clever (maybe too clever) and funny and I feel that the ending made up for what was lacking earlier in the book. Or maybe I was just glad to be done with it.

Oriana

post-read: Ohhhh, I really missed reading Robbins. What fun!

This book was both more and less wonderful than I'd remembered. More because I'd forgotten just what a superb stylist Robbins is (see mid-read comments). His plots are intricate, his characters are rendered in wonderful detail, down to the distinctive vocal stylings. His ideas, though perhaps a smidge stale twenty-five years on, are still interesting and fun and clever and smart, intellectual, but not in a showy or pedantic way. Plus there's that anxiety you get when you're, oh, twenty or so pages from the end of a book, thinking There's no way he can pull it all together satisfactorily in so few pages! But he does! It's a tiny bit cheesy, maybe just a wee bit pat, but c'mon. He had an awful lot of balls in the air.

Less for a few reasons. I'd kindly blocked out the fact that everyone in a Tom Robbins novel sooner or later launches into a discourse that sounds exactly like Tom Robbins, which can get pretty annoying. Also, I forgot how letchy he can be. There's a lot of sex in this book – in fact, it's one of the four pillars of immortality – which is fine; it's just that the descriptions of it are often a bit much. ("Alma hiccupped the mushroom scent of his spurt," ex, not to mention lots of glistening, semen-encrusted thighs, and that sort of thing.)

The other thing, which isn't really bad or good, exactly, is that I think Tom Robbins is kind of a victim of himself. He's too much Tom Robbins sometimes. Too hippie-cliché; too cerebral-in-an-understandable-but-trippy-way; too specific with his characters, to the point where they become caricatures that are hard to take seriously; even, sadly, too over-the-top with his metaphors ("his knuckle began rapping at his eye patch like a mongoloid woodpecker drilling for worms in a poker chip"? Are you kidding?); just too... too much.

I guess taking a few years off between Robbinses allows one to forget these drawbacks just enough to come back to him fresh and be able to enjoy his shimmering originality again.

mid-read: It's not that I'd forgotten, exactly, but no one does metaphors like Tom Robbins. For example: The sky was a velvety black paw pressing on the snowy landscape with a feline delicacy, stars flying like sparks from its fur. Fuck, really??

pre-read: Last night I made the most amaaazing beet salad. And this afternoon, as I was pondering a middle ground between all the new new new new things I've been reading and something (Proust) too, ah, weighty to take on vacation, I saw my little half-shelf of Tom Robbins. I can't believe I don't have Another Roadside Attraction , but I thought I'd maybe check out this one, which I haven't read in like a decade.

The whole book is about beets!!

And oh my god, how have I not read Tom Robbins in so long?? He is so fucking cool.

Margitte

I'm going to add many quotes from this book and not indulge too much in the plot.

Like Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, and my more recent read of Jonathan Carroll's The Land Of Laughs, this book took me into a maze of philosophies and literary genres, which one of the characters in the book, Dr. Wigs Dannyboy, so eloquently described: "As fortunate as I am to be born an Irishman and thus possess a license to broadcast this brand o' pseudolyrical bullshit, that's how fortunate I am...”

The striking beginning of the tale of Alobar, loosely --very loosely-- based on the multiple adventures of Homer's Ulyseus, had me sitting straight up, pen in hand, notebook wide open, heart beating, breath shortening. This book grabbed all my sense at the spin of the very first few words into the very first paragraphs:
THE BEET IS THE MOST INTENSE of vegetables. The radish, admittedly, is more feverish, but the fire of the radish is a cold fire, the fire of discontent not of passion. Tomatoes are lusty enough, yet there runs through tomatoes an undercurrent of frivolity. Beets are deadly serious.

Slavic peoples get their physical characteristics from potatoes, their smoldering inquietude from radishes, their seriousness from beets. The beet is the melancholy vegetable, the one most willing to suffer. You can't squeeze blood out of a turnip . . .
The epigraph introduced the themes of the story:
The history of civilization is the story of man's emancipation from a lot that was harsh, brutish, and short. Every step of that upward climb to a sophisticated way of life has been paralleled by a corresponding advance in the art of perfumery. —ERIC MAPLE

AND

The distinctive human problem from time immemorial has been the need to spiritualize human life, to lift it onto a special immortal plane, beyond the cycles of life and death that characterize all other organisms. —ERNEST BECKER
Alobar would survive a thousand years and recount his adventures to the modern seekers of magical perfumes, botany and longetivity.

Alobar, however, since, thanks to the Bandaloop, he had witnessed three hundred and eighty-five thousand, eight hundred and six sunrises in his life, and judging from the milky molluscan glow seeping through the barred window, was about to witness yet another.
However, the moment he was devoid of the opportunity to exercise his own believes, the genes came calling:
More awake, actually, for the guards dozed over their detective magazines, dreamily musing about the long Thanksgiving weekend that was approaching, while Alobar was kept fully conscious by the smell of his body aging. Yes, he could smell it. During the first year of his sentence, he hadn't aged a notch. His body was still running on the impetus of a millennium of immortalist practices.

With the exception of breathing techniques, he was unable to continue those practices in prison, however, and one day it dawned on his cellular bankers that the immunity accounts were overdrawn and there hadn't been a deposit in fifteen months. The DNA demanded an audit. It was learned that Alobar's figures were juggled. He had successfully embezzled more than nine hundred years.

Outraged, the DNA must have petitioned for compensation, because within a week, Alobar's salt-and-pepper hair had turned into a pillar of sodium. Wrinkle troops hit the beaches under his eyes, dug trenches, and immediately radioed for reinforcements. Someone was mixing cement in his joints.

Now, in his third year behind bars, he could smell, taste, and hear the accelerated aging going on inside him. It smelled like mothballs. It tasted like stale chip dip. It sounded like Lawrence Welk.
The prose was just so picturesque and descriptive that it was hard for me not to add even more quotes from the book
THE CARROT SYMBOLIZES financial success; a promised, often illusory reward. A carrot is a wish, a lie, a dream. In that sense, it has something in common with perfume. A beet, however . . . a beet is proletarian, immediate, and, in a thoroughly unglamorous way, morbid. What is the message a beet bears to a perfumer? That his chic, elitist ways are doomed? That he might profit from a more natural, earthy, straightforward approach? This beet, this ember, this miner's bloodshot eye, this apple that an owl has pierced, is it a warning or friendly advice?
Postmodernism, magic realism, epic moments fill up this lengthy, too often dragging tale, bogged down by philosophical daydreaming and too much carnal moments for my taste, but the humor and the literary rhythms of the prose kept me reading.

Alobar's tale spanned several continents and nine centuries. It is the story of perfume, of consciousness, of historical moments, of life and beet!

This book was an ambitious undertaking that worked very well. It's not a book for everyone, but certainly leaves much to ponder in its wake. It was a slow read. But a very good one.

One of my favorite quotes from the book: Louisiana in September is like an obscene phone call from nature.

I truly loved the experience. And now for more beet in the diet and the Bandaloop dances. I'm all set to meet up with Aljobar in my next life :-)

Postscript in the book:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR TOM ROBBINS has been called “a vital natural resource” by The Portland 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.

After reading this book, you will have to agree :-)) A friend recommended the book and curiosity got the better of me of course, but I'm glad I took it on.

Brian

"The highest function of love is that it makes the loved one a unique and irreplaceable being."

“Jitterbug Perfume” is a novel that starts out with 4 separate story lines. And then about 120 pages or so into the text the 4 stories slowly start to come together. As the tales become more and more entwined one cannot help but marvel at the genius of Tom Robbins.
The middle of the novel has moments that might get a little too heady for the casual reader, and therefore might come across as slow reading. Just plow through and make sure to pay attention. Robbins is setting something up for later in the text.
Par for the course with a Robbins text, his use of figurative language is astounding. Especially impressive in this book are some of his insanely creative similes. How does this man do it? On page 60 there is a metaphor about the air in Louisiana as an obscene phone call from nature. It is brilliant, you know immediately what he is saying, and it is typical Robbins. Also incredible in this book is the thematic use of beets as a metaphor that is so apt that when it is finally revealed you wonder at how you missed it.
The last chapter, called “The Bill” is simple, astounding, and very profound and a killer manner in which to end this novel.
In “Jitterbug Perfume” Tom Robbins use of the sense of smell to propel his theme is creative and so practical. It makes perfect sense. This is one of the best Robbins I have encountered so far, and it will guarantee that I continue the journey.

Scott

Tom Robbins is, to me, like the band Rush (I know this seems like I'm trying too hard, but honestly, this is the best analogy I can come up with & this is legitmately the first thing that came to mind): You like them ok, and even get a bit excited when they come up on the radio, but when you're grabbing CDs for your car, your copy of "Moving Pictures" somehow never quite makes the cut. That's how it is with me and Tom Robbins. Well written? Check. Interesting characters? Check. Unique? Double check. Glad I read the book? Check...But somehow this is all never enough to get me to grab his next book off the shelf. Robbins is one of my wife's favorite authors, and I can see why, but somehow his work just doesn't grab me on a long-term basis. Still though - great book. If you want something a bit unique & haven't read his stuff yet, give this a try. Unlike me, you'll probably want more.

Jana

Two stars, and I’m being nice. And I am a f*cking huge fan of beetroot.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been eating it like it’s the only vegetable on the menu. It’s good for iron in the blood, and I like it pickled, raw and boiled. I could eat it constantly. I love sex as well, I love reading about it. Of course you want to know a lot about.

But this book was hysterical. In the beginning I was so enthusiastic, and Alobar had a face and body of Gerard in ‘300’ movie. Oh la la la, take me, take me, take me. Even if you don’t shower.

Book had it all, and then he/Robbins started talking. And I started blinking, what are you talking about? And it wasn’t the sex part, nymphs coming all over the grass, sperm all over everybody, lesbians gnawing in the toilet, Rabbit nose, and now I am here, now I am not, bees as an accessorize and religious history.

My thoughts were, aha, ok, yes, ok. Simple thoughts. I’m mocking this book too much now, but what I want to say. General idea is great, really fascinatingly great - people should enjoy more, appreciate life more, look what happened throughout history - we have every reason to understand happiness and love, to live happily and be in love (and to have as much sex as we can) and send positive vibes to each other.

The essence of everything is Pan ... but all together, this book was like warm milk. Something that I was forced to drink when I was younger and it tasted like shite, and in this metaphor, I was forcing myself to finish reading.

Cogito, ergo sum. Sorry Tom, thank you Descartes.

Final result: lets put that nose little bit down, ha, Mr. Robbins? Lets not tear the clouds with it.

Justin

Talk about not understanding what all the fuss is about. If I'm not mistaken, Tom Robbins is kind of a literary legend in some circles, and at the very least has sold millions of books. And while there's certainly an intelligent, probing mind behind this sexual-philosophical hodgepodge of a book, the sum of the parts of my first foray into Robbins' world was not much fun to read.

I recently read an interview with Tom Robbins in which the author admits to being able to write about two pages a day. This makes sense to me because I was able to read about two pages of Jitterbug Perfume a day. I read this book out loud to my girlfriend, over many months, usually in bed before going to sleep. We thought it would be a fun book to read together, and at first it very much was, but by the end it was a struggle to get through even a few paragraphs without nodding off.

Robbins sets a colorful cast of characters in motion right from the get-go: There's Priscilla, a sexually frustrated "genius waitress" trying to invent perfume in her Seattle apartment. There's Madame Devalier and her assistant V'lu, who also make perfume in New Orleans, and there's yet a third perfume-making team out in Paris, whose names I can't remember so pointless were they to the story. (And yet, they are talked about as if they are important, a penchant Robbins seems to have for... nearly everything. Every sentence of Jitterbug Perfume rings with an air of unfathomable significance, as if Robbins has solved the mysteries of the universe and has taken it upon himself to explain it to us. It's all VERY self-important.)

Anywho! Not one of the aforementioned characters is very interesting, but it's intriguing to imagine how they all might connect. Also, Robbins kept us hooked (initially) with the tale of yet another set of characters, Alobar and Kudra, a couple who meets something like 900 years ago, then proceeds to learn ancient eastern self-preservation techniques and live healthily and happily until the present day. At first, it's fascinating to simply follow these strange, exotic characters around a bygone Eastern world, but Robbins can't sustain the momentum. When they actually start living forever, moving through time and geographical location, it feels like we are living forever right along with them. They have long, tedious conversations expounding on love and relationships and spirituality and immortality and other stuff I can't remember and they meet the god Pan, who makes everyone he encounters extremely turned on despite the fact he smells horrible.

I dunno... I'm getting tired even thinking about this book, let alone trying to describe hundreds of pages of arbitrary plot detritus that I've already spent months slogging through. Simply put, Robbins' pinballing wackiness and juxtaposition of the mythical and the real felt contrived to me, and his relentless stream of off-kilter metaphors and humorous asides felt a.) dated as hell comedy-wise (like the literary version of 1980s stand-up comics), and b.) extremely self-satisfied, as if he was constantly winking and nudging us and saying "can you believe I'm describing something this way? can you believe it? eh, sonny? pull my finger!"

This funny/dirty old man vibe achieves downright unpleasant proportions in the second half of the book, when the Priscilla character falls for a much older man/social theorist named Wiggs Dannyboy, who she bangs relentlessly in scene after scene of squirm-inducing sexual depiction (positions? thrust patterns? fluids? You name it, you got it.) These scenes feel all too much like some kind of fantasy the middle-aged Robbins (At the time of Jitterbug's inception, that is) is enacting on the page—and they're gross.

It would all be ok (gross sex, Robbins' arrogance, meandering plot threads) if it all went somewhere, but it doesn't. It really doesn't. The disparate characters do come together, but not in any meaningful fashion, and last-minute additions like Wiggs Dannyboy, Bingo Pajama and a strangely sentient swarm of bees feel tacked on, and boring in their arbitrariness. There are some nice ideas in Jitterbug Perfume—some pointed stuff about deep breathing, healthy eating, and general soulful living predates the alternative lifestyle movement by at least a decade or more—but lord you have to dig to find it. And dig, and dig, and dig...

Topics