The brilliance of Tom Robbins’ sensuality lies in his innate ability to make you fall in love with everyone. In Still Life With Woodpecker, there is no clear cut villain, nor hero, despite the fact that, at the outset, Bernard is preparing to blow shit up like the true anarchist he is. Yet Bernard slowly unravels throughout the novel to be quite more than just a self-proclaimed outlaw. He is, in fact, a romantic. It is the deep romanticism – and idealism – that lives in each character that makes you fall deeply in love with them. As a twenty-something heterosexual female, however, Bernard stands above the rest in making my heart go pitter-patter.
The novel follows the tragic affair of Leigh-Cheri, a self proclaimed celibate and deposed European princess, and Bernard who meet in Hawaii. A few rounds of tequila after their initial hellos finds them making out passionately at the bar (ah, tequila!), and thus begins their tortured affair. What makes Bernard so fascinating is that, throughout the novel, he doesn’t give up his anarchist leanings – despite Leigh-Cheri’s much more hippie mentality of “love everyone and make the world a better place.” Bernard, much more keen to shake people up (quite literally, as he bombs a UFO meeting in Hawaii), does not lose his penchant for explosives. Yet, against all odds and his better judgement, Bernard the Woodpecker falls in love.
The couple return to Seattle, where Leigh-Cheri’s family lives. It is here that Bernard’s more bumbling ways come to light, and make him even more endearing. While everyone loves a bad boy, there is always the complication of bringing one home to Mommy. Bernard exemplifies this, but in the most peculiar, haphazard of ways. Leigh-Cheri is royalty, after all, and must be courted as such.
“Bernard the Woodpecker, who had mocked if not broken the behavioral codes of an entire civilization, rebelled, naturally enough, against the notion that he must obey the rules and regulations of a house of second-rate royalty. Eventually, however, he put pride aside and obeyed—for he wanted very much to make love stay.”
Of course, he manages to ruin a priceless rug, kill Leigh-Cheri’s mom’s chihuahua, and then, to top it all off, he gets arrested.
All throughout these exploits, Bernard maintains a surprisingly intense romantic streak that one might not think possible in an anarchist. (Though perhaps their particular brand of outlaw makes them more predisposed to idealist whims on love, and in fact everything else.) His passion remains unfaltering and, even with Leigh-Cheri self-isolated in heartbreak, Bernard refuses to let his broken heart get the better of him. When Bernard finds out that people are copying Leigh-Cheri, and retreating into solitude as some sort of fad, in a rage he dares to… shave! And then, in a letter to his one true love, he ends their romance, writing:
Romance is not a bandwagon to be jumped on by lost souls with nothing more interesting to ride… [S]ociety is all too eager to turn the deepest, most authentic human experiences into yet another shallow fad… Leave it to a naive world-saver like you to view our love as a Sacred Cause when in actual fact all it was was some barking at the moon.
Bernard’s unwavering dedication to his sort of whacked-out ideals is just the tip of the iceberg to his character. Robbins’ ability to create exceptionally morally vague characters, with surreal flaws and strange whims is what draws the reader into a deep connection, empathy and, indeed, love with each and every one of them. Their flaws make them hyper-real, their convictions surreal, and their unbridled passion human-real. Leigh-Cheri says it herself: “He was a genuine human being. By God, Bernard Mickey Wrangle was real.”
Bernard Mickey Wrangle, Bernard the Woodpecker, Bernard the fierce lover, anarchist, zealot, and worshiper of chaos – like a spell he winds his way around your heart and squeezes it dry, sopping up the blood until you’re left with nothing but a stone, damn it.
Of course, in the end, it all works out for the best. Bernard turns out not to have been killed by a jailer, and is reunited with Leigh-Cheri. Their final course of action is, in the truest sense, dramatic: locked together in a pyramid, they create an explosion to set themselves free, rendering them both deaf. But better to be deaf and with the one you love, than to hear all the sounds of the world’s love and never have it yourself, I suppose.
Robbins confronts the reader with the question, “How do you make love stay?” It is one of the many underlying themes throughout the book, and the driving force behind an abundance of Bernard’s wild whims, his boom-booms, his poetry and lyricism. Bernard’s passion running wild is perhaps the greatest explosive in his arsenal. It is, indeed, what draws you into him, despite the obvious dangers and warning signs. I’d much rather fall in love with an outlaw than a Disney prince, and Bernard the Woodpecker is some such outlaw. Love, itself, is some such outlaw too.
Gabriella Geisinger is a 24-year-old New Yorker, relocated to London to pursue her master’s in Creative Writing at City University London. She has eclectic tastes in music and poetry, favoring Dylan Thomas (she couldn’t pick a favorite band if she tried). She has contributed as a music journalist to SPIN, iCrates.org, and top5.com, and her first published poem was featured in Sassafras Lit-Mag. Gabriella hopes to have more poetic works published. The daughter of a WWII-vet-poet-father and a psychotherapist-mother, she enjoys examining the human condition through literature. More of her writing can be found at gmgwrites.tumblr.com.