1990; 422 pages. New Author? : No. Genre : Satire; Contemporary Fiction; Humorous American Literature. Overall Rating : 8*/10.
Everybody’s either on the move or about to be.
The newlyweds Boomer Petway and Ellen Cherry Charles, are traveling from Seattle to New York City, because the art scene is better in NYC, and Ellen is an aspiring painter. The Airstream motor home they’re driving is a turkey. Really. Well, a mechanical one, welded together by Boomer, but nevertheless looking like something from a giant’s Thanksgiving dinner table.
The mystically enchanted duo of Painted Stick and Conch Shell have lain dormant for centuries, but they’re about to be revived by the utterance of the magic word. No, not abracadabra, but “Jezebel!” They’re stuck in a cave in the Pacific Northwest right now, but their ultimate goal will be Phoenicia, in what is present-day Lebanon. Good luck, you two. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Can o’ Beans, Spoon, and Dirty Sock are about to be awakened alongside Painted Stick and Conch Shell, and will use their newfound mobility to tag along with their benefactors. The lack of innate enchantment may prove to be a handicap.
Spike Cohen and Roland Abu Hadee (aka “Isaac and Ishmael”) are about to open a restaurant across the street from the United Nations. They intend to prove that a business partnership between a Jew and an Arab can not only survive, but even flourish. Good luck, guys. You’re gonna need it.
The televangelist, Reverend Buddy Winkler, is tired of God fiddle-farting around when it comes to Armageddon and building the Third Temple in Jerusalem. He intends to help the Almighty by kick-starting the End of Days.
Their paths will all converge near St. Paul’s Cathedral, but it should be noted: none of them has “skinny legs and all”.
What’s To Like...
Tom Robbins uses Skinny Legs and All to present his theory that our views of the world are shrouded by illusions stemming from various sources. He focuses on seven areas – Race, Politics (the desire to have power over others), Marriage, Art (its inherent pretentiousness), Religion (dogma and tradition overwhelm brotherhood), Money (the false security of it), and Lust. Since these are blinding our eyes to what is real, the author likens them to Salome’s “Dance of the Seven Veils”. Straightforward expounding on this would probably be tedious to most readers, so Robbins wraps them up in a tale where our protagonist, Ellen Cherry, gradually starts seeing through these veils.
As with any Tom Robbins novel, the writing is sublimely superb. Every sentence, no matter how unimportant, seems to be a work of literary art. There are similes aplenty, and Robbins has always been a wizard at using them. One random example: “Looking at you in your kimono, it felt like some backyard chef was sprinkling meat tenderizer on my heart.” Wowza. The storyline is divided into seven sections, each addressing one of the seven veils. The character development is also fantastic; any writer can build a personality for some person in his novel, but try doing that for a can of baked beans.
Religion gets a extended analysis here, especially the three major Western ones – Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. The Old Testament is common to all three, and Tom Robbins gives a new take on their collective origins, suggesting that it “borrows” much from (earlier) pagan religions featuring Astarte/Ishtar and other deities. The Crusades is seen from the Moslem point-of-view, and modern-day televangelism is viewed in all its hypocritical zeal.
I very much enjoyed the "animate inanimate" objects. In addition to the five already mentioned, you’ll also be privy to the thoughts from a glob of goo, a drawer of panties, and a vibrator that spouts off inane-sounding Zen aphorisms.
Skinny Legs And All is awash in fascinating trivia references. I had to look up David Hockney and Pouilly-Fumé. Donald Trump gets cited twice, which is a bit eerie since the book was written in 1990. Bonnie Raitt makes a cameo appearance, so do Monet’s water lilies. And the recorded voice of the operator cutting in on Ellen Cherry’s pay phone conversation, to request that she deposit more coins to continue talking, brought back nostalgic memories for me.
The ending is a mixed affair. On one hand, the Boomer/Ellen relationship thread is resolved, at least for the moment. OTOH, the fate of a lot of the other characters seemed to be left in limbo. A street performer named Turn Around Norman just fades into oblivion, after having played a prominent role in the tale. And the god/gods/goddesses “Pale” (Wiki he/she/them) must surely still have plans for Conch Shell and Painted Stick. Yet I don't believe Tom Robbins ever penned a sequel to this.
Kewlest New Word ...
Odalisque (n.) : a female slave or concubine in a harem.
Others: Pouf (n., slang)
What was a can of beans but a pawn in the game of consumption? From field to factory, from market to household, from cook pot to lunch plate, the destiny of a can of beans was as sealed as it was simple. Ultimate destination: rust heap and sewage pond. Yet, he/she had managed to escape the norm, to taste a freedom unimagined by others of his/her “lowly” station. Moreover, were the lives of most humans any better? When humans were young, they were pushed around in strollers. When they were old, they were pushed around in wheelchairs. In between, they were just pushed around. (pg. 110
Spike Cohen alone seemed to remember how dangerous the I-&-I could be. From his post behind the cash register, he kept one eye on the street, as if the street were a crocodile-skin shoe that might at any moment revert to its original state of being. When, around the corner of First Avenue, a truck backfired, thin electrical noises came out of his windpipe.
Spike’s jitters were for naught. Except for the fact that they ran out of chick-peas, the evening produced scant catastrophe. The next evening was positively humdrum. And the one after that was as bereft of disorder as a Heidelburg symposium on anal retention. In truth, the entire winter passed as peacefully and leisurely as a python digesting a Valium addict. (pg. 261)
Back around Seattle (…) trees were so thick, so robust and tall, that they oozed green gas, sported mossy mustaches, and yelled “Timber, yourself!” at lumberjacks. (pg. 11)
There's a lot of cussing, a couple of rolls in the hay, and a slew of sexual references, but this is true of any Tom Robbins novel. For me, the storyline started rather slowly, but things picked once the inanimate objects started speaking. Still, there were times when the plot progression seemed to slow to a crawl.
I think one’s enjoyment of Skinny Legs And All depends on whether you want the story to be plotline-driven or thought-provoking. If you want the former, you may be disappointed; if you want the latter, you’ll be blown away. I wanted both, naturally, and Tom Robbins’ writing mastery trumps any quibbles I may have had about the storytelling.
8 Stars. Skinny Legs And All was almost as good as my favorite Tom Robbins book, Still Life With Woodpecker (reviewed here). It gave me a lot to think about concerning the illusions of our world, and …HEY!! Did that can of beans sitting on the kitchen counter just say something?!