One of my favorite literary passages appears in the book Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas by Tom Robbins. This book could perhaps be best described as a mystical screwball comedy about the stock market. I know that’s a lot to accommodate as a concept, but Robbins handles it deftly. His dialogue is creative and funny, his deeply flawed characters are maddeningly well-developed and his plot is twisted, yet consistent. But this is not a book report, Dear Reader. This is my review of one jewel-like passage that outshines not only the rest of the book but also the complete works of many other authors. An excellent example of the best fiction writing.
Okay, that’s a lot of hyperbole, but now you may judge for yourself. The story is set in Seattle, that bastion of dampness (yes, they have a stock market there), and in one rather long but deliciously sensory paragraph, Robbins sums up the endless, permeating rain:
This is Seattle, the brief, bright spring has stalled, and the rains have returned. They have stolen down from the Sasquatch slopes. They have risen with the geese from the marshes. It rains a chattering of totem teeth. It rains a sweat lodge of ancient vapors. The city, with its office towers and electricity, has been somehow primitivized by the rain: every hue darkened, every wheel slowed, every view foreshortened, every modern, commercial mind-set turned in on itself, forced to rub shoulders with the old salamander who sleeps in the soul. Hour after hour, the rain will fall; apartments, decorated to be showplaces, will take on the character of burrows or nests; and espresso carts, the little pumping stations of Seattle’s lifeblood, will glow beneath their umbrellas like the huts of shamans. Drops spiral from every cornice, every antenna, every awning. Drops glisten on each plate-glass window, each tailgate, each inch of neon that sizzles in the mist. Dense, penetrating, and modifying, the rain narrows the gap between nature and civilization. Forgotten longings stir in the crack.
I love the way Robbins captures the relentlessness of the drenching Seattle rain. Indeed, the use of one long paragraph mimics the never-ending effect of an all-day soaking rain. The onomatopoeia of “a chattering of totem teeth” evokes the nonstop ticking of rain on every surface, and the metaphors of the sweat lodge of ancient vapors and the espresso carts like the huts of shamans keeps to the ancient and mystical theme of the rain “primitivizing” the modern city with its timeless embrace. More onomatopoeia: drops glisten, neon sizzles. Robbins ends the passage by restating the triumph of ancient Nature over the edifices of modernity and the awakening of the deeper self, perhaps the “old salamander who sleeps in the soul”. In my personal opinion, this is masterful, and I hope you enjoyed it, too.