I still haven’t quite got what all the fuss is about over The Da Vinci Code; it’s only a work of fiction. Heck it’s not even that original an idea; Jesus Christ was a human being who had a wife and kids and died and the Vatican has conspired for 2000 years to cover up this truth. Ho Hum. Been there, read it, and almost bought the T-shirt.
I’m not even talking about the guys who wrote The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail either. That wasn’t the first book to come down the pipe about the mystery surrounding the life and times of the carpenter from Nazareth who was cast into the role of saviour. It wasn’t even the first one to incur the wrath of the Vatican and find itself on the proscribed list.
Nikos Kazantzakis only had to have Jesus be tempted while on the cross with giving up Godhood in exchange for married life to get himself in trouble. The irony of course is that Nikos was a devout Christian who believed in the divinity of the Christ. But he had Him be sorely tempted at the last moment to give it all up for the love of a good woman. (Is it just me or does it sound like there’s a country song lurking in there somewhere)
But the first book I read which dealt with the thorny subject of “The Cover Up” was by American author Tom Robbins. His first novel, published in 1971, Another Roadside Attraction, meandered into the catacombs of the Vatican and found out the deepest, darkest secret.
Amanda is a fortuneteller in a travelling circus of hippies and other exotica, when she meets jazz musician/film-maker/magician John Paul Ziller and his baboon Mon Cul (who happens to be the only creature in existence who knows a word that rhymes with orange). Before you can say “love at first sight” they have announced their marriage, and abandoned their itinerant ways to open another roadside attraction.
In their case this amounts to a hot dog stand and flea circus. They’ve only just settled in to raising their firstborn, when Marx Marvelous wanders into their lives. (Surprisingly not his real name, he created it on the theory that those two words together would be enough to set any decent red-blooded American male’s teeth on edge.) Marx ingratiates himself into their lives under false pretences. While pretending to be a fellow traveller on the road less travelled, he is actually a plant sent out by a think tank in Washington to discover what the younger generation is in an uproar about. (Remember this was written in 1971 and while the sixties were dying, revolutionary fervour was still somewhat in the air.)
The hot dog stand, by the time of Marx’s appearance, had become sort of a lodestone for those who were following the advice of Tim Leary on “Turning On, Tuning In, and Dropping Out”, so it seemed like the ideal place for Marx to take as his base of operations. So he spends his days working at the zoo, lusting after Amanda, and being educated in the mysteries of the Universe as understood by Amanda, John Paul, and Mon Cul.
But all good things, such as they are, must come to an end, and in this case the end appears in the shape of an old friend of John Paul’s, L. Westminster “Plucky” Purcell. Plucky is a former college football star turned drug dealer/fixer/ and general all-around black market operative. Aside from his prodigious appetite for members of the opposite sex, which often lands him in a heap of trouble, he’s also highly skilled in the art of unarmed combat.
One of the drawbacks with work in his field is that it will occasionally require you to seek shelter from individuals who have decided they don’t like your business practices. On this occasion Plucky had sought refuge in the deep woods of Minnesota. Exchanging identities with a monk, he beats a hasty retreat to a highly isolated monastery.
Well, as you’ve probably guessed, it turns out that said monastery is home to one of those nefarious secret establishments run by the Vatican, and chock full to bursting with assassin monks, spy monks, and all sorts of other monks doing un-monk like things. It turns out that the monk (isn’t fiction great) that Plucky is impersonating has been sent to help train Vatican staff in the art of unarmed combat. The Swiss Guard may look impressive, with their pikes and all, but they need to be able to handle crowd control without impaling people. It wouldn’t look good on camera to see a pilgrim’s entrails spilled on the cobbles of St. Peter’s square.
So Plucky ends up in the Vatican, where due to who he supposedly works for, he’s given the run of the place. When he’s not teaching the Swiss guard how to manhandle people with style, he spends his time poking his nose into places not too often poked around in. Being who he is, he is attracted to some of the deeper catacombs where the lewd and obscene materials have been collected.
One lazy afternoon, while perusing an illuminating illuminated manuscript, Plucky’s reverie is shattered by an earthquake. As he’s hurrying towards an exit, he notices that a catacomb door has been jarred open. How the fates hinge on such little things as deciding to look through an open doorway. Laid out like anybody’s mummy, and wrapped in the usual mummy swathes of cloth, is the body of a person around 5’4″.
What compelled Plucky, and what inner sense told him who this was, only the cosmos can answer; but Plucky picked up body, knowing full well that he had the bones of Jesus Christ slung over his shoulder. Stopping to remove an unconscious nun’s habit and cowl, which he proceeded to disguise his companion with, he raced from the scene yelling for help – to all the world looking like a distraught priest looking to bring succour to one of the sisters.
It was probably the confusion that allowed the fact that Plucky had the body flung over one shoulder escape notice, and let him run right by all the medical help streaming on to the scene. Only upon reaching his apartment and laying down his burden, did the full implications of what he had done sink in. Having no idea how long it would take them to discover who was missing from both the living and dead, he decided to move fast. A casket and a dead aunt got him a flight back to America and a trip to a roadside zoo.
So Jesus came to America for the first time, second if you believe the Mormons, in the cargo hold of an airplane. He crossed the country and eventually became the latest inhabitant of a hot dog stand and roadside zoo.
The unfortunate thing about having an attraction is that sometimes you attract the wrong sort of attention. It didn’t take long for the powers that be to put two and two together, put out a missing person’s report, which featured Plucky and his unspecified cargo and begin to descend on the diner. So Plucky, John Paul, and Mon Cul decided it was best to disappear with their guest. So they boarded a hot air balloon and quite literally vanished
Although I tend to find Tom Robbin’s more recent books, probably everything since Still Life With A Woodpecker, poor imitations of his previous works Another Roadside Attraction was a wonderful read at the time when I first read it. Robbins was one of the few writers who was openly expressing and utilizing the ideals of the counterculture in ways that were not either exploitive or judgemental. While he may not have spoken for anybody in particular, at least he spoke in a voice most of us could understand when we read it.
Like Richard Farina in Been Down So Long , writing about the early 1960s and the beginnings of the counterculture, Tom Robbins captured the spirit and the mood of the times by simply respecting and caring for his characters. The confusion of people like Marx Marvelous who were caught between admiring the freedoms this new lifestyle offered, but who couldn’t quite bring themselves to commit to it wholeheartedly, is treated with sympathy and respect.
Marx is all of us who’ve yearned to be free but have been too scared to let go of the fetters that bind us to security. Freedom comes with a price, and for some people that price is a little too steep to pay. It means giving up long-held beliefs and cherished ideals, which for some is almost impossible.
In a book that has as its centrepiece the mummified remains of the person who supposedly ascended to heaven, proven out by the fact his tomb was empty, one could expect a certain amount of cynicism towards religion. But there is a lightness of touch, a gentleness of spirit if you would, that pervades the book that refuses to allow the reader to become jaded and angry.
Yes Tom Robbins is questioning the idea of Jesus Christ having literally ascended to heaven, but he does it in such a way that he does not condemn anybody. He’s just asking people to consider the fact that other possibilities exist. That’s pretty much what a lot of young people were doing at the time, considering what alternatives existed for them compared to how their parents had lived and the possibility for change.
Tom Robbins is by means the great writer some people have made him out to be, but all of his books have a gentleness of spirit and a genuine affection for their characters. One can’t help liking the people who inhabit his pages no matter how strange they might be.
Another Roadside Attraction is a lot of fun and never takes itself or its plot all that seriously. The gentlemen who have come afterwards with their tales of the nefarious Catholic Church, secret societies, and conspiracy theories, would have done well to have emulated Mr. Robbins a little more and the X-Files and its ilk a little less. Paranoia and cynicism are a lot less palatable than gentleness and humour.
Another Roadside Attraction is almost an artifact of a more innocent time when people considered change and alternative ideas out of a desire to expand their horizons. Our current fascination with sinister plots and conspiracy theories is as good an example as any of attitudes have changed. We’d rather find something out that confirms the corruption of things around us than enjoying the enlightenment that can come with knowledge.
Call me naïve if you like, but I kind of miss that innocence.