I discovered Tom Robbins on my mom’s bookshelf when I was in High School. A fan herself, she had an assortment of his novels and I devoured, quickly, Even Cowgirls get the Blues followed by the rest of her collection. Cowgirls has remained my favorite of his novels, but I’ve always felt that Skinny Legs and All seemed more important, somehow more serious and more fantastical at the same time, and I always felt like I had learned something from it even if I couldn’t name it. The truth is, all of Tom Robbins books hold a kind of magic sway over me. I don’t re-read books very often, but I have read his many times over since my adolescent discovery. So, I’m re-reading my Tom Robbins’ books this year and reviewing them and I don’t know how I’ll write sensible reviews, but I’m going to try:
Skinny Legs and All is about Ellen Cherry Charles, a young, hopeful artist attempting to escape her oppressive Southern, religious roots to New York City. It is also about her new husband, Boomer Pettiway, who swept her off her feet unexpectedly with the true love of her life, art (in roast turkey form), and accompanies her on her escape. It’s about their love and their fear. It’s about her uncle Buddy, a preacher with dangerous ambition and a desire for the apocalypse dressed as the second coming. It’s about a lost spoon, a can of beans, and a sock animated by mystical forces possessed by a conch and a stick and their journey to Jerusalem. It’s about Christians and Jews and Muslims and the Middle East. It’s about a dance, skinny legs and all. It’s about philosophy and dropping the veils of belief to better understand ourselves and our world. It’s also about love, and religion, and time, and money, and art, and football, and the doorman.
What I love about Tom Robbins is that he can make this book about all of these things and it all makes sense to me, but I have no idea how to tell you more without ruining some of that magic.
I’ve always found it difficult to describe the reasons for my love of Tom Robbins’ work. I meet others who are either as enthusiastic as I am or who fall on the opposite extreme: they don’t care for it at all and might even has a strong distaste for it. I had a professor in my MFA program who was trying to help me come up for sources of inspiration suggest, knowing my love of reading, that I use a favorite author as a jumping off point for work and when I told him I could try using Tom Robbins, the look on his face and accompanying disappointing statement was enough to sour me on that professor for the rest of my program (though I still think he and his work are brilliant). Alas, his work is predicated on Shakespeare and maybe Tom Robbins is too frivolous? And that’s part of it. Tom Robbins’ writing is frivolous. It’s really, really fun.
It’s also really sexy. And it’s also really romantic. I have always loved that. Skinny Legs and All is a sexy book. Not only is there sex in it, but there are also moments that feel sexy in their silliness. We learn the difference between “Naked” and “Nekkid” if you didn’t already know. We imagine the way an animated spoon might yearn for the role she once had delivering jelly and other soft, gooey substances to people’s lips and tongues (and recent viewers of Shondaland’s Bridgerton will probably understand this sentiment). And there is plenty of actual sex too. The sex is tied to the mundane. It’s also tied to religion and the exploration of pagan history and ritual that could be totally fictitious but is probably based on truth if I had to bet on it. And I like that Tom Robbins has always written about sex as a part of our lives in many ways. It’s also romantic. I’ve always argued that Tom Robbins is the ultimate romantic, and despite their wackiness, philosophical heaviness, and sexiness, that ultimately his books are about love. I mean, if one of your protagonists creates a spy coat with 500 hidden pockets that all secretly declare his love for his partner, how could you argue any differently?
In re-reading, I’ve been trying to hold room for the possibility that there are problems in his books and writing and I know there must be (no one is perfect). I think as a male, there are likely complaints to be made about the sexualization of his female protagonists. But honestly, it’s never bothered me and I’m not sure if I’m just trying to find something to worry over. I think some people probably don’t like the way he carries on in his writing – he’s a fan of lists and metaphor and elaborate sentences that go on and on and I AM FOR IT. But I could see how others might get tired of reading that way. I think he tackles identities and communities that are complicated for white males to write about (race, gender, sexuality, indigenous peoples, religious communities, etc. all being subjects he tackles in his stories) but even when making fun and poking at these communities and identities it has always felt respectful to me and generally in line with the fun he makes of white male people and our culture and society at large (again, I’m rereading them all this year and this is the first so we shall see).
Perhaps that easiest critique would be to say that Tom Robbins throws a lot of philosophical spaghetti at the wall just to see what sticks throughout his books, and I think that is especially true of Skinny Legs and All. But for whatever reason, I find myself linking these ideas, arguments, thoughts, and statements together into a story, into this story, and it just makes sense. It may not be as profound as it feels when I’m reading it, maybe it’s not really all that profound at all, but dang it, it’s written damn well, and I love the way it feels to read it. So you should give it a shot too if you haven’t because maybe you’ll feel that good too.
Anyway, as hard as it is to choose, I’m going to end each of these reviews with a favorite monologue from the book in question, though you can be sure I’ve got at least twenty more dog eared in the book:
“The manner in which the others were regarding him/her made Can o’ Beans feel compelled to continue. ‘The word neat, for example, has precise connotations. Neat means tidy, orderly, well-groomed. IT’S a valuable tool for describing the appearance of a room, a hairdo, or a manuscript. When it’s generically and inappropriately applied, though, as it is in this slang aspect, it only obscures the true nature of the thing or feeling that it’s supposed to be representing. It’s turned into a sponge word. You can ring meanings out of it by the bucketful-and never know which one is right. When a person says a movie is ‘neat,’ does he mean that it’s funny or tragic or thrilling or romantic, does he mean that the cinematography is beautiful, the acting heartfelt, the script intelligent, the direction deft, or the leading lady has cleavage to die for? Slang possesses an economy, an immediacy that’s attractive alright but it devalues experiences by standardizing and fuzzing it. It hangs between humanity and the real world like a… a veil. Slang just makes people more stupid, that’s all, and stupidity eventually makes them crazy. I’d hate to ever see that kind of craziness rub off onto objects.’”