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Through Salome’s Veils to Ultimate Cognition SKINNY LEGS AND ALL<i> by Tom Robbins(Bantam: $19.95; 416 pp.) </i>

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In his previous novels, “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” “Another Roadside Attraction,” “Still Life With Woodpecker” and “Jitterbug Perfume,” Tom Robbins deployed his hyperactive sense of humor to wage a series of comic campaigns in the ongoing Battle of the Sexes. In his latest, “Skinny Legs and All,” he ambitiously expands the action to other fronts across a broad battlefield of history, pitting not only male versus female but Christian against pagan, Arab against Jew.

Entertaining no longer seems to be enough for Robbins. Indeed, in the propositional asides to his reader, which he inserts into his digressive narrative with the leisurely liberty of a Laurence Sterne, claims for a higher creative mode are clearly set out:

“Mockingbirds are the true artists of the bird kingdom. Which is to say, although they’re born with a song of their own, an innate riff that happens to be one of the most versatile of all ornithological expressions, mockingbirds aren’t content to merely play the hand that is dealt them. Like all artists, they are out to rearrange reality. Innovative, willful, daring, not bound by the rules to which others may blindly adhere, the mockingbird collects snatches of birdsong from this tree and that field, appropriates them, places them in new and unexpected contexts, re-creates the world from the world.”

The rearranged, fresh-contexted reality here assembled for us by the fictional creator bears little naturalistic resemblance to the world outside his book’s covers. As Robbins hints in his authorial prelude, not that world but a distorted chamber of his artistic imagination--where once “Jezebel frescoed her eyelids with history’s tragic glitter, Delilah practiced for her beautician’s license (and) Salome dropped the seventh veil while dancing the dance of ultimate cognition, skinny legs and all"--supplies the actual setting of his new book. And we are constantly reminded of the novelist’s deliberate artifice by the book’s structure: “Skinny Legs” is divided into seven parts, each one to represent a different “veil” of illusion.

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The heroine, whom he attempts to guide, via a plot as thinly contrived as one of those legendary veils, through the distractions of history’s tragic glitter to ultimate cognition, is a contemporary “Jezebel,” Ellen Cherry Charles. Perhaps a relative of Leigh-Cheri, the electrifying, oversexed, red- haired cheerleader-princess of “Still Life With Woodpecker,” Ellen Cherry, pert, round-breasted, with “animated rump” and lush “tangle of caramel-colored curls,” is a modern woman of avid, independent mind and sexuality.

An unwilling Southern belle, she flees the confines of her Colonial Pines, Va., family home to become a painter in Seattle, and is pursued there by her hometown beau, a brawny welder named Boomer Petway. Boomer is far more taken with Ellen Cherry’s anatomy than with her artistic aspirations, but his philistinism is forgiven when she lays eyes on his amazing Airstream trailer adorned with two giant metal drumsticks and a pair of stumpy wings. She abruptly marries him, and they head east in the shiny motorized fowl.

Along the way, the honeymooning couple stops off somewhere in the wilds of Wyoming or Utah to picnic and make out. Unbeknownst to them, the cave they’ve picked to tryst in already houses two archaic occupants, who are awakened by the proximate amorous activity.

With user-friendly anthropomorphism, Robbins at this point blithely trots out his main secondary “characters,” a pair of inanimate objects possessed of the ability to talk and locomote. They are Painted Stick and Conch Shell, “male” and “female” talismans left in the cave in ancient Roman times by a wandering Phoenician priestess of the Earth Goddess Astarte.

Through these voluble fetishes, the novelist smuggles in canned history of the Middle East over the last 3,000 years, including such highlights as the building of Solomon’s and Herod’s temples, and the Crusades. Humankind went wrong by abandoning archaic life-affirming Earth Mother cults, suggests the novelist-turned-sage; Salome and Jezebel, wise in the ways of the goddess, have been victims of a historical bum rap, their vital message lost in the shuffle of endless turf battles for supremacy among the followers of misogynist male deities.

Painted Stick and Conch Shell, we soon find, have a mission: to revive the worship of long-neglected Astarte. To this end, they set out for Jerusalem, enlisting in their company three objects inadvertently left behind in the cave in the hasty exodus of the startled human lovers: Dirty Sock, Spoon and Can o’ Beans, each with its own personality. Together, this unlikely band of travelers survive a picaresque odyssey that eventually deposits them in the basement of St. Patrick’s Cathedral (see excerpt below) in New York, where they await an opportunity to cross over the ocean to the Holy Land.

Boomer Petway and his new bride are meanwhile gripped by ridiculous trials of their own. A predatory, artificial and large-breasted gallery owner embraces not only Boomer’s turkeymobile--which is soon enshrined in the Museum of Modern Art--but the unwitting “artist” himself. Sudden-sensation Boomer, a Li’l Abner in among the art sharks, drops Ellen Cherry for the horrible gallery lady; next we see him he’s off to do a sculpture commission in, of all places, Jerusalem.

The jilted Ellen Cherry, her own canvases a washout, resorts to waiting on tables in the Isaac and Ishmael restaurant, across the street from the United Nations. This well-intentioned but shaky enterprise, run by a Russian Jew and an Arab, suffers constant attacks and threats from religious extremists of both camps--most notably from one of Ellen Cherry’s holy-rolling redneck relatives, the rapture-hungry Baptist doomsday preacher of Colonial Pines, who teams up with Zionists in a plot to provoke new Mid-East hostilities.

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The book’s wet firecracker of an intended climax comes in a final marathon Super Bowl Sunday sermon on the world’s problems, delivered into the mind of a newly enlightened Ellen Cherry while a Lebanese belly dancer performs “the dance of the seven veils” at Isaac and Ishmael’s. Almost all the inanimate objects get to the Holy Land, and the estranged human lovers are reunited, with Robbins’ defiance of realism intact right down to his happy ending.

With this book, Robbins once again proves himself an extremely clever writer, but unfortunately also one whose uncertainties of tone and stylistic overreaching affect nearly every page. His prose, often brilliant, seems bound to draw attention to itself in the most demanding of ways; particularly overloaded with startling or cute analogies, it sometimes slips on its own stretched comparisons and falls on its face.

Then again, maybe this is just a matter of taste. Some people like rich confections. And what else are “moon rays . . . strewn through the pine boughs like rolls of toilet paper hurled from the upstairs window of some primeval fraternity house,” “chunky spectacles . . . like wheels of a chariot overrunning an emaciated fourth-century Christian,” a “limousine (shooting) through Central Park like a blow dart through Amazon foliage,” or a winter that passes “as peacefully and leisurely as a python digesting a Valium addict”?

Robbins’ self-conscious delight in his own stylistic sleight of hand, his assiduous straining after effect with extravagant figures, and his whimsical imaginative indulgence in the paradoxical absurdities of history, can carry “Skinny Legs” and its reader only so far. Beyond, into the “ultimate cognition” Robbins preaches--perhaps to be found on the other side of that “thick veil that shields a being from the transformative and tricky light of liberty, from the dizzy incandescence of self-determination"--this whole unwieldy planetary redemption project continually beckons and gestures, but never actually goes.

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“In the dimmest corner of the dim sub-basement of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, in the darkest grotto to be found within that granite and marble reef, that atoll exuded by the affluently pious and in whose crust so many guilts and longings lay embedded; in a snuggery so somber and deep that no ray of prayer had ever penetrated to it nor any nun come there to secretly dance the boogaloo; in soft, safe shadow insured by obscurity against the knife edges of votive candle flames and the artillery of flashbulbs that fired when newly wed or newly dead celebrities made their exits through the God-size doors; down there where God’s little vermin, excluded by force from the congregation, partook of his dank hospitality; there in a homogeneous, socialistic blackness that suppressed the rights of individual colors for “the greater good,” there Painted Stick and Conch Shell huddled together in conference or embrace.

‘ “What do you suppose them two do when they slip off like that?” Dirty Sock had once inquired. “They up to something cee- lestial, as they call it, or is it"--he grinned at Spoon--"s-e-x?”

‘ “What’s the difference?” Can o’ Beans had asked.

‘ “Probably none where you’re concerned. You don’t even know which sex you are.”

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‘ “I happen to be both. Which, I daresay, is two more than you. Besides,” he/she huffed, “gender is not the same thing as sex.”

‘ “Yes, Sock,” the spoon had chimed in. “Just because technically you once had a mate doesn’t mean you’ve had experience in carnal matters.”

‘ “And I suppose you have?” He had leered at her fiercely.

‘ “Certainly not!” she protested, and if any memory of jelly--the way that jelly jiggled or the way that jelly teased--was aroused in her, she promptly purged it of possible erotic connotation by announcing that she served the Blessed Virgin and would likely choose celibacy even were she of that animate nature where such a choice would have been more than academic.

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As for Can o’ Beans, he/she, at that point, might have accused Dirty Sock of being jealous of Painted Stick, but he/she was reminded of his/her eternal debt to the foul footwear and had backed off. “Mr. Sock is less mean than grumpy,” he/she told him/herself, “and while meanness is a function of the insensitive, grumpiness is merely a function of the dissatisfied.” ’

From “Skinny Legs and All”


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