Though written over 25 years ago, Tom Robbins’ Skinny Legs and All is still relevant today. While dystopian classics like George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale are enjoying renewed public interest, it’s remarkable to reread this tale of a dirty sock, a can of beans, a spoon, a painted stick, and a conch shell.
The beautifully unrealistic tale is audacious and provocative, alarming and humorous. The can of beans is a philosopher; the spoon a mystic. A Southern girl turned West Coast waitress and a redneck welder who discovers a lost Palestinian god make for spirited and enlightened reading.
The book is broken up into seven sections, or “veils,” in which Robbins uses the Veils of Ignorance and the Dance of the Seven Veils as metaphors to drive home his point.
Disaffected Southern belle Ellen Cherry Charles vacates the stuffy confines of her Virginia hometown to pursue life as an artist in Seattle. Determined to make it on her own terms, she is pursued by Boomer Petway, a welder and a roughhousing, rollicking ball of fun, set on winning his sweet’s undying love.
To this end, he constructs an Airstream trailer, festooned with giant metal drumsticks and a pair of squat wings. Ellen swoons; they marry and head east in the gleaming motorized bird.
But somewhere in the Wild West, they stop off for a picnic in an old cave, unaware that their cozy spot is already occupied by two archaic religious items, left there by a wandering Phoenician priestess of the Earth Goddess Astarte, only to be awakened during a particularly vocal lover’s tryst.
Thus we are introduced to Painted Stick and Conch Shell, whose human attributes Robbins uses to give us an abridged history of the Middle East and to lament the loss of Earth Mother worship.
Oh, and all of this is told to a can of beans, a dirty sock, and a spoon, left behind in the aftermath of Boomer and Ellen’s discarded picnic.
Robbins takes enormous liberties, tossing similes about with abandon. The evening sky “sucks up daylight like a sump pump siphoning milk gravy.” The sunrise is “a neon fox tongue, lapping up the powdered bones of space chickens.” These images convey more than the sum of their words, leading us on a playful romp through the author’s hyperactive imagination.
But his social commentary is spot-on. His assumption that those wise in the ways of the goddess (and, by connotation, all women) have been vandalized by misogynistic male leaders can certainly find traction today. I could relate to the caricature of Ellen’s uncle—a doomsday-hungry Baptist preacher intent on bringing down the Dome of the Rock in order for the Third Temple to be built and the rapture to follow.
The pace keeps things moving towards a rousing and, improbable as it seems, coherent conclusion. Using a character named Salome to dance the Dance of the Seven Veils for a packed and conflicted house during Super Bowl Sunday directs us to the truth of the veils and, ultimately, our happiness.
At 422 pages, Skinny Legs and All is a light yet remarkably satisfying read, with a sense of whimsy and the ability to blur the lines of illusion.
In these days of protest and resistance, Skinny Legs and All is a gateway to an old, and yet new, way of thinking about Mother Earth that has for too long been kicked to the curb and now deserves a hearing in the court of public opinion.
Thomas Walchuk loves books so much that he took to only reading very short Internet stories about corrupt politicians and other questionable officials. He is very grateful for the chance to curl up with a good book and delve into the inner workings of its author’s intentions, to languish in its words and float on its plot. He hopes to translate that gratitude into an informative review for fellow book lovers.