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- Published on Amazon.com
One of my biggest post-literate mistakes was choosing "Skinny Legs and All" as my first attempt at a Tom Robbins book. It was a big mistake because, for that first pass, I didn't make it past page fifty. And spent the next two years avoiding Tom's oeuvre, for fear of reliving that first awkward experience. Hindsight tells me that those two years could have been spent in an enlightened, blissful state if I'd started my Robbins journey elsewhere. When I tried "Skinny Legs" again, after 'getting' the Robbins of "Another Roadside Attraction" and "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" and "Jitterbug Perfume", I was astounded at the magnitude of its greatness. And more than a bit embarrassed that I passed off its hyper-creativity as just strangeness for strangeness' sake.
The strangeness I speak of, which rears its ugly (nay, sublime) head before page fifty, concerns an Airstream welded to look like a giant roast turkey, and sentient dialogues between a spoon, a dirty sock, and a Can o' Beans (and later, a mystical Conch Shell and a magical Painted Stick; ancient objects with an enormous task ahead of them). Hmm. A first time Tommer can be expected to run screaming from images like that, skeptical that they can be made credible. But the seasoned pro knows that Tom has something exciting up his sleeve. And can't wait to find out what it is.
"Skinny Legs" follows the 'exciting' adventures of Ellen Cherry Charles, erstwhile artist and sometimes waitress, and her newlywed husband Boomer Petway, creator of said turkeymobile. Their plan is to drive from Virginia, which is too conservative to cultivate Ellen's artistic and sexual passions, to New York City. The goal is to find fame and fortune in the art community. Which they do, but not in the expected way.
While in New York, Tom throws in many issues and ideas that are as relevant today as they were in 1990 when the book was published. More so, even. Talk of New York terrorism, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and Jerusalem as a hot button issue, all inform the story in one way or another (as do Tom's staples: art, love, passionate sex, philosophy, history, etc. etc. etc.). This can best be seen in one of Tom's most poignant creations: a restaurant named Isaac and Ishmael's, owned by a Jew and an Arab in an attempt to call attention to the brotherhood needed to end the conflict in the Middle East. "To a bird in the air, it's beanies versus dishcloths," notes the I&I's Arab owner, Roland Abu Hadee, before he summarize the foolishness of the situation. "To a bug on the street, both groups are the same." Tom's handling of the Israel conflict, and the way he weaves it into his story, is masterful. He takes his position on the conflict (through the I&I, which in an attempt at reconciliation is not-so-incidentally named after Sarah's sons: the bastard child who went on to become the father of the Arabs, and the legitimate child who went on to become the father of the Hebrews), allows his characters their passions, and even offers a number of fanciful solutions.
But he's not always fanciful and flippant about the situation. One character notes that as New York and London and Tokyo, etc. are all about money, "Jerusalem is about... something else." It's a complicated city, with a complicated history, embroiled in a conflict that's "an overload of craziness... a seventy-piece orchestra rehearsing a funeral dirge and a wedding march simultaneously in a broom closet."
While that part of the book is concerned with the unknowable, the rest of the book tries to find a solution to such problems. Enter the stories of Jezebel (idolater, hussy, face-painter, former Queen of northern Israel) and Salome (she of the Dance of the Seven Veils). Both figures make metaphorical and nearly literal returns to our modern world in the book. In doing so, they lift "the veils of ignorance, disinformation, and illusion [that] separate us from that which is imperative to our understanding of our evolutionary journey, shield us from the Mystery that is central to being." This is, in just one sentence, Tom Robbins' goal for this sprawling and magical book.
Along the way to achieving this goal here, Tom's flair for humourous language and analogy is at its peak. This, to me, has always been the sugar that allows Tom's sometimes-harsh medicine to go down easily. Here lie some of my favourites:
...Concerning the name of an ancient leader of Babylon: "Nebuchadnezzar is a poem... a swarm of killer bees let loose in the halls of the alphabet."
...Ellen Cherry practicing the menu of the I&I, at which she is the hostess, with Boomer:
"Now what the heck is 'roz bel khalta'?"
"Yiddish for Mrs. Jimmy Carter?"
..."Eviction was staring [Ellen] in the face like a deviate on the subway". (This last one is important to me because not only is it a powerful simile, but it is a powerful *New York* simile; there's nothing more stereotypically New York than deviates on the Subway. Tom, as you can see, is in full control of his gifts here.)
"Pious dogma, if allowed to flourish," says the Conch Shell. "Will always drive magic away." For Tom Robbins, an author who buys magic wholesale and manages to fashion it into something even more tangible and wonderful, this is the cruelest death that can be inflicted on mankind. Rest assured, he's doing everything within his literary powers to make sure that never happens. "Skinny Legs and All" is a perfect symbol for this fight. Now it's your job as a reader, whether a Tom-newbie or someone who's been down his lush paths before, to have patience, keep an open mind, and know that Tom would never steer you wrong. Least not here, in one of his masterpieces.