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Wednesday, November 5, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Writer In The Rain': A Look At Tom Robbins, A Northwest Original

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

----------------- Television review -----------------

"Tom Robbins: A Writer in the Rain," 8 p.m. Thursday, KCTS-TV. It repeats Sunday at midnight, 10:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 13, and 2:30 a.m. Monday, Nov. 17.

Tom Robbins might be called a confectioner of prose. He can take the most mundane concepts - sheets of rain coloring winter, a leftover building from the world's fair, ruddy beets freckled with soil - and with his own brand of verbal alchemy make them into rich, sweet treasures.

That rain, Robbins says in "Why I Love Northwestern Washington," "composes music for the psyche. It whispers in secret languages about the primordial essence of things."

A touch of Robbins' magic transforms the Pacific Science Center into "a snowy honeycomb secreted by angels and as gleamingly bright in rainy weather as in sunshine."

Blood-red beets, bane of a child's existence, are to Robbins "the most intense of vegetables - and deadly serious."

KCTS-TV (PBS) senior producer Jean Walkinshaw's half-hour documentary, "Tom Robbins: A Writer in the Rain," airing at 8 p.m. Thursday, shows how this enigmatic author of such books as "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" and "Jitterbug Perfume" has transcended the "regional writer" label to become an author whose books sell thousands of copies around the world.

Yet Robbins' voice makes him difficult for some readers to digest. And as filmmaker Gus Van Sant found out with his flopped film version of "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues," his quick-draw wordplay can be difficult to translate into feature films.

"One of my books is a hallucinogen, an aphrodisiac, a mood elevator, an intellectual garage door opener, and a metaphysical trash compactor," Robbins says. "They'll do everything except rotate your tires."

A difficult feeling to capture in a documentary, but somehow Walkinshaw manages to do just that.

"A Writer in the Rain" touches on key details of Robbins' life, from the way he secretly nurtured his intellectual side while growing up in the rural South, to his beginnings as a writer at The Seattle Times, to his successful fiction-writing career and romance with his wife, Alexa.

Along the way Robbins explains his take on spirituality and his predilection for mayonnaise-and-tuna sandwiches spiced with kimchi. He also reveals the reason he buries copies of his manuscripts in the back yard, and why he's appeared in films such as "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle" but could never be an actor.

"My voice sounds like it's strained through Daniel Boone's underwear," he explains.

Film director Alan Rudolph and Seattle Weekly arts editor Bruce Barcott provide views on Robbins' popularity and why critics seem to trample his work.

"He's got these just fantastic sentences, and they tend to sometimes overwhelm the plot," Barcott explains.

But Rudolph responds with a different perspective on Robbins' wandering descriptions: "They visit these places and thought patterns that take you away from what some people would call the plot, but while you're going away, the other part of you is thinking about how it fits into the story."

Throughout the documentary, Walkinshaw uses a tone that reflects Robbins' writing flavor. She juxtaposes images that inspire the author - the Pacific Norhwest's dew-jeweled flora, the Pacific Science Center's elegantly lacy architecture, and Seattle's hazy winter days - with interviews of Robbins sporting a Spam hat and shades.

The two or three audio samples of Walkinshaw interviewing Robbins are unnecessary and break the documentary's natural rhythm, but they're small flaws in an otherwise enthralling examination of one of the Northwest's best-known contemporary wordsmiths.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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