A redneck and an aspiring artist driving cross-country in a 65-foot roast turkey. A beautiful princess living in the attic of a house surrounded by blackberry brambles, with nothing but a cot, a chamber pot, and a pack of camel cigarettes, philosophizing about love. A waitress in Seattle, a New Orleans alchemist knowledgeable in “unconventional” medicine, and a renowned Parisian performer; all receiving beets from a mysterious source. A Filipina stockbroker in Seattle with a boring boyfriend. Remember that game you played as a child: choose the one that doesn’t belong? In this case the choice is painfully obvious; it is the stockbroker, Gwendolyn Mati, the main character in the most recent book by novelist Tom Robbins, Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas. Gwen’s role in the cast of Tom Robbins’ protagonists, that of the misfit, is indicative of the novel Half Asleep in its entirety.
Tom Robbins, a novelist who has been astonishing and delighting readers with his off-beat fiction for almost 20 years, has fallen a bit short with his newest attempt. Robbins is famous for his ability to create, book after book, characters, situations, and dialogue that push his readers’ imaginations to their outermost limits. Unfortunately, my imagination was not awakened by much in this fairly run-of-the-mill story. Most of the characters are people that I recognize to a greater or lesser degree, the lesser degree because they bore me. Gwendolyn Mati, a stockbroker from a very broken home, is the money-grubbing, shallow, self-absorbed protagonist. The unconventional upbringing results in some very bizarre and often irritating behavior on her part. (Since the whole novel is written from her point of view, it is impossible to escape this, the most annoying and unlikeable character.) Robbins does give the reader glimpses of interesting characters, but because they exit almost as soon as they are introduced, we are left unfulfilled.
The book opens on the day the bottom falls out of the stockmarket. It is the worst day of your life; at least from the point of view of the author. He forces you, the reader, to become completely immersed in the narrative by making you Gwendolyn.
The stockmarket crashes on a Thursday, and you must wait 3 interminable days, until it re-opens on Monday. To exacerbate the problem, you have committed some unspecified indiscretion involving clients’ money, and your problems have become more complicated than being able to make the payments on your new Porsche. On top of all of these problems, your best friend disappears the day after the crash. Your friend, Q-Jo Huffington, is a 300+ lb. psychic that you are embarrassed to be seen in public with. Although you have decided to end your friendship with her, the weekend is still consumed with your search for her. That search thankfully leads you to the most interesting character in the book, Larry Diamond. Diamond, an ex-broker, currently a world traveler, historian and philosopher, is extremely likeable and believable in his eccentricity. As well as being a key to the search for Q-Jo, he also becomes key in the opening of your (Gwendolyn, remember?) mind and the awakening of your sexuality. As if that isn’t enough, your time is also being demanded for the search for your Bible-bashing boyfriend’s pet monkey, who loves banana popsicles and is an ex-jewel thief. Add all of that up, if you can, and throw in a Japanese doctor with a magic green wand that cures cancer, a sexual assault being caused by the astrological studies of the Bozo Indian tribe, and the tarot leading you to Timbuktu. It sounds like a promising start to someone familiar with Robbins’ writing antics. It’s not.
Put simply, Robbins has disappointed me with his latest work. None of the widely diverse characters and situations introduced in Half Asleep interact convincingly enough to make it classic Robbins. Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas occasionally provides the reader with flashes of Robbins’ characteristic brilliance, making it a worthwhile read, especially for staunch Robbins fans. However, because of the murkiness of the story and the lack of cohesiveness between the characters, I definitely would not recommend this for a first time Robbins reader. Pick up Skinny Legs and All or Still Life With Woodpecker if you want an unparalleled reading experience.