Laura Harcourt's Reviews > Skinny Legs and All

Skinny Legs and All by Tom Robbins
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Mar 31, 09

Read in March, 2009

** spoiler alert ** Perhaps, in this particularly cynical day and age, it is hardly surprising that the most philosophically bent of Tom Robbins' characters in Skinny Legs and All is a can of beans. A redneck welder-turned-artist is a close second, expressing his own brand of somewhat confused philosophies regarding art, love, and the state of the world.

Robbins uses his pontificating Can O'Beans and the can's animated inanimate friends to take the plot of Skinny Legs and All to a higher level of academic thought than it might otherwise achieve; our main link to the tangled history of the Middle East and the legendary city of Jerusalem is a Painted Stick, a Conch Shell, and Can o'Beans him/herself.

We start the story sitting with Boomer and Ellen Cherry in their honeymoon getaway vehicle: a gigantic welded roast turkey on wheels. This is the physical expression of Boomer's love for his brand-new wife. The story only gets stranger from there.

The book follows the structure of the legendary Dance of Seven Veils, a dance so enchanting that John the Baptist was murdered because of it--so the story says. It creates a spiritual and philosophical journey for the reader as well as each character, and flawlessly mixes modern motivations with ancient traditions. In New York City, a Jew and an Arab start a restaurant together, the welder becomes an artist and travels to Jerusalem, an Evangelical preacher believes he can create the Apocalypse, Ellen Cherry just wants to get laid, and Can O'Beans fulfills his/her greatest dreams despite enormous odds.

One of the first comments Robbins makes in the novel is that art is the rearrangement of reality. He's talking about mockingbirds, but the same can be applied the the entirety of Skinny Legs and All. Robbins recklessly pushes his characters into a strange version of our world, one where a bellydancer named Salome out-performs the SuperBowl, one where the ancient god of Palestine is rediscovered by a guy named 'Boomer.' And the characters themselves: they not only go along for the ride, they're aware that they're on a sort of pilgramage, particularly Boomer, who, grasped by the unforgiving Muse, delves deeply into art. His erstwhile bride, however, digs her heels into New York and stays put, stubbornly trying to stop the inexorable enlightening movement...in her defense, however, it's through Ellen Cherry's eyes that we watch the veils drop, and she is by far the most entertaining of the various narrators. Unlike Can o'Beans, who, seeming to regard him/herself as self-nominated historian, translates at length Painted Stick and Conch Shell's history of Jerusalem, Ellen Cherry does her best to keep out of the whole mess. Her stubborn belief that she is neither interested nor involved in the Middle East is jarring next to the other characters' obsession with the place: Abu and Spike wax lyrical about Jerusalem, Can o'Beans and the other inanimates do their best to make it to that famed city, and even Boomer finds himself totally fascinated by the combination of violence and religion that is that citadel, Jerusalem.

One of my favorite aspects of Robbins' writing is his love of women, and that comes to the forefront in Skinny Legs and All with his portrayal of Ellen Cherry Charles. With her obsession with Jezebel, her love of girlish shoes, and the way she clings to a feminine ideal, Ellen Cherry is voluptuously feminine. Even her temperment--quick to anger, quick to compassion, quick to leaps of logic--is practically a stereotypically female one. Robbins needs Ellen Cherry's strength of character to discuss the book's main motive: the feminine pagan religion of Astarte vs. the patriarchal organized religion of Yahweh. Let me put it this way: if you are a fan of Robbins' soliloques on feminist religions vs. masculine ones; if you enjoy his unabashed Whitman-esque worship of bodies, nature, love and sex; if you prefer unexpected metaphors to straightforward prose, you will enjoy this book.

it is impossible to describe Robbins as a purely feminist writer, or Skinny Legs and All as a purely feminist book. In fact, I'm not sure I would call it "feminist" at all. Skinny Legs and All is simply, in my opinion, the finest example of Robbins' ecletic ideas and ideals, his bizarre and alliterative imagery, and his love of people and the world at large. Not even in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, a novel whose main character is famous for her hitch-hiking, is the breadth and width of the U.S. so lovingly described, or its place in the world studied. It's a strange mix of modernism and romanticism, of mythology and street performers. Robbins spins us through the story with breath-taking ease and familiarity. No one who is familiar with Robbins' past work will be surprised to find that Skinny Legs and All evolves into a treatise on religions: ancient, organized and defunct, Robbins considers them all. His main beef is with Christianity, so if you're a bit edgy on that subject, I'd suggest keeping an open mind or avoiding the book altogether. The good news? He's already used the Corpse of Christ in one novel, so it doesn't pop up again. The bad news: two of the Bibles most famous tramps are, welll--unveiled. But that's not so bad.

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