Just an Old Fashioned Love Song : HALF ASLEEP IN FROG PAJAMAS, <i> By Tom Robbins (Bantam: $23.95; 386 pp.)</i>

<i> Peter Elbling is a writer living in Los Angeles. His most recent book is a children's story called "Aria" (Viking). He is also working on a novel</i>

It was pure coincidence that I read the latest Tom Robbins’ (that guru of ’60 wit) novel, “Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas,” over the Woodstock ’94 weekend: not just because of the rain, which permeated the book and drenched the festival, but because it evoked memories of midnight discussions I’d had around the years of the first Woodstock, which dealt with similar if equally outrageous premises. No doubt Robbins’ legion of fans will plunge headfirst into his latest storm of cosmic revelations without a life raft, but the uninitiated should be warned that their guide is a prim Filipina who narrates the book in the second person. The book jacket warns that trying to describe a Tom Robbins novel by summarizing its plot is like pointing to a snowflake and asking someone to grasp the concept of downhill skiing. That was equally true of many of those late night discussions, but I’ll try anyway.

Ostensibly, the plot concerns the Angst Gwendolyn Mati--an ambitious but slightly unethical yuppie stockbroker--goes through on the Easter weekend following the stock market crash. On this clothesline Robbins hangs a number of bizarre plots and characters who interweave and overlap like an army of ants building a colony out of blotter acid.

Gwen’s best friend and neighbor is Q-Jo Huffington, a 300-pound psychic. Her boyfriend, Belford Dunn (think Ralph Bellamy) has a pet ape named Andre, who had once been sentenced to death for stealing jewels on the French Riviera, that is, until Belford rescued him. All three characters disappear relatively early on--Q-Jo simply vanishes, which given her size is no mean trick (Gwen’s joke, not mine), Andre runs away and a crestfallen Belford spends the rest of the novel in vain pursuit of him. Poor Gwen--and now we come to the real story--is left alone to deal with Larry Diamond, a “tall, slender man with bleached stringy hair hanging halfway down the back of a worn leather jacket” who crashes into her life with more force than the dire bulletins from the stock market.


A former legendary broker, who gave it all up in the ‘80s, Larry has just returned from the University of Timbuktu in Mali, where he learned any number of things--including mental telepathy, which he uses on Gwen with disturbing accuracy. Overcoming her initial distaste for this “scumbag,” Gwen seeks to enlist Larry’s aid both in her search for Q-Jo and to cover her financial indiscretions before the market opens on Monday.

But Larry, who suffers from the big C, is more concerned with meeting Dr. Yamaguchi who has just arrived from Japan with a cure for cancer, which may or may not affect the Nikkei index. While Larry and Gwen chase through the rain-drenched streets of Seattle in pursuit of their quarries, Larry delivers a never-ending series of lectures on all manner of subjects that range from the difference between growing and transforming, the obsolete and retrograde nature of salaried employment, “those of us concerned with jobs are reading the global disappearance of frogs and the return of our amphibian ancestors from the DogStar Sirius, which incidentally is worshiped by an African tribe the Dogon, who live in Timbuktu.

And why is Larry telling Gwen all this?

“I said to myself, Larry, wouldn’t it be a fine thing, a swell thing, a boon to the community of man and to all creatures great and small, if this girl’s soul was as ripe and as stunning as her ass.”

Gee, what’s a girl to say? Not much. How can she even compete when Larry delivers all these bons mots with a W. C. Fields cadence--unless he sounds like “William S. Burroughs ordering a root beer float.”

As noted previously, the novel is narrated by Gwen in the second person, which you either get used to, as I did, or find enormously irritating, which I did also.

“It is indicative of your state of mind that you drive through past the Continental Place without bothering to gaze up at the ninth-floor windows of the luxury condominium that you have so coveted and for which you must deliver a down payment within a week or else lose it and your ‘earnest money’ to boot. You feel as if your brain, which only a few days ago sat like a well-fed hen on a nest of warm numbers, hatching schemes and clucking waltz time, has been painted with radium and smacked with a fly swatter. It’s a wonder you find your way home.”

Home? I found it difficult finding my way to the end of some of those paragraphs. But once I did, I realized that “Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas” is really an old-fashioned romance novel in which a sexually repressed heroine has her body and mind blown by a charming outlaw whose mouth is a character all its own. Larry’s grin “widens like a rip in a wetsuit,” but it is also “alarming in that it is simultaneously violent and generous, antagonistic and admiring.” He has a leer which “can fold faster than a lawn sprinkling service in Bangladesh,” a cackle “like a mechanical magpie laying a barbed-wire egg” and a kiss “so like a Mexican wedding dress, with layers of lace and tiers of frills, with flounces, embroidery, rows of pearl buttons and loops of bright ribbon, that the angry traffic turns into a fiesta and the parking lot attendant waving his arms at you becomes a drunken priest bestowing a blessing.”

Forget Larry, I want some of what Gwen’s smoking.

Hovering underneath, overhead and everywhere else is the presence of the “visiting faculty” of the University of Timbuktu to whom Robbins dedicates the book. If you haven’t guessed by now they include such psychedelic shaman as Tim Leary and Terence McKenna among others, so it should be no surprise that mushrooms, dolphins, frog-licking and other symbols and icons of the new consciousness appear in various forms and permutations.

Some of the book’s characters I found amusing, such as Gwen’s bongo-playing jive talking father, and when Larry wasn’t smiling, grinning or cackling, he seemed like a perfect ‘90s counterculture hero. As always, Robbins gets off some snappy lines, “passion is not a walk through the woods, it is the woods,” and when he contains himself, he evokes some wonderful images, “rain, that thin grey sheriff has also served to its coldhearted eviction notices to the crowd outside the Sorrento (hotel).”

But too often the characters’ comings and goings are just there to service the main plot, and when Robbins gets carried away with his similes, he spends paragraph upon paragraph describing Seattle in the rain, you pray for the nearest drain to carry away the run-off. In the end I felt the same way I had when watching the news flashes about Woodstock ’94. For those who weren’t born when the first one occurred it must have been a wonderfully liberating experience, but unless you’re a die-hard fan, it all seemed to be trying a bit too hard.