Skinny Legs and All (Robbins)

Skinny Legs and All
Tom Robbins, 1990
Random House
422 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780553377880

An Arab and a Jew open a restaurant together across the street from the United Nations....

It sounds like the beginning of an ethnic joke, but it's the axis around which spins this gutsy, fun-loving, and alarmingly provocative novel, in which a bean can philosophizes, a dessert spoon mystifies, a young waitress takes on the New York art world, and a rowdy redneck welder discovers the lost god of Palestine—while the illusions that obscure humanity's view of the true universe fall away, one by one, like Salome's veils.

Skinny Legs and All deals with today's most sensitive issues: race, politics, marriage, art, religion, money, and lust.  It weaves lyrically through what some call the "end days" of our planet.  Refusing to avert its gaze from the horrors of the apocalypse, it also refuses to let the alleged end of the world spoil its mood. And its mood is defiantly upbeat.

In the gloriously inventive Tom Robbins style, here are characters, phrases, stories, and ideas that dance together on the page, wild and sexy, like Salome herself.  Or was it Jezebel?. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—July 22, 1932
Where—Bowling Rock, North Carolina, USA
Reared—near Richmond, Virginia
Education—attended Washington and Lee University;
   Virginia Commonwealth University; University of
   Washington, for a Masters degree.
Currently—lives in La Conner, Washington

So much mythology swirls around Pacific Northwest novelist Tom Robbins that sorting fact from fiction is a daunting challenge. Born Thomas Eugene Robbins in 1936 in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, he was raised from age 11 on in a suburb near Richmond, Virginia. He attended Washington and Lee University but did not graduate. Instead, he quit college and spent a year hitchhiking, settling for a while in New York City.

Robbins enlisted in the Air Force in 1957, just one step ahead of the draft, and served three years in Korea. Upon discharge, he moved back to Virginia to attend art school at Richmond Professional Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth University), graduating in 1961. During this time he worked as a copy editor for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

According to Robbins, the South's hidebound racism— perfectly mirrored in the newspaper's policy—prompted him to move as far away from Richmond as possible "while still remaining in the continental United States." He ended up in Seattle in the early 1960s, enrolled in the University of Washington to pursue his Masters, and went to work for the Seattle Times. If we are to believe the story, it was around this time that he first sampled LSD (not yet an illegal substance). Blown away by the experience, he chucked both grad school and his job at the paper and spent the rest of the decade bouncing between the East and West Coasts—writing, working as a DJ in alternative radio, and partaking liberally of the countercultural smorgasbord of the day.

Towards the end of the '60s, Robbins began working seriously at his writing, culminating in 1971 with the publication of his first novel, the comic absurdist tale, Another Roadside Attraction. A failure in hardcover, it nevertheless sold well as a paperback, prompting publishers to release his next book—1976's Even Cowgirls Get the Blues—in both formats simultaneously. Although he has not been a hit with most mainstream critics, Robbins has achieved rarified cult status with successive generations of 20-somethings who adore his goofy, upbeat satirical fiction. He claims to never read reviews but is pleased to have enjoyed a steady string of bestsellers starting with Still Life with Woodpecker in 1980. In 2005, he produced Wild Ducks Flying Backward, a volume of shorter works, including poems, stories, essays, articles, and reviews.

Rumor has it that Robbins polishes each sentence to perfection before moving on to the next. Whether or not that's true, he does admit to being a slow writer—and to needing a long period of rest and recuperation (usually involving travel to some exotic place) in between books. All of which explains why his output is surprisingly slender, especially for a writer who inspires such passionate, fanatical devotion!

• An accomplished artist, Robbins is one of only a handful of writers to have cover design built into their book contracts.

• When Elvis Presley died of an overdose in his bathroom on August 16, 1977, there was rumored to be a copy of Another Roadside Attraction on the floor beside him.

• While working as a journalist and DJ in Washington state, Robbins attended a 1967 Doors concert in Seattle. He claims that the origins of his unique writing style can be found in that piece.

• Robbins has enjoyed friendships with a group of widely people, from '60s countercultural icons like Alan Ginsberg and Timothy Leary to mythologist Joseph Campbell (with whom he once traveled to South America).

• Robbins has appeared in several films, including Made in Heaven; Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle; Breakfast of Champions, and Gus Van Sant's 1993 adaptation of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. (From Barnes & Noble.)

Book Reviews
Robbins possesses magnet-like power.
USA Today

In a phantasmagorical, politically charged tale you wish would never end, Robbins holds forth—through a variety of ingenious, off-beat mouthpieces—on art (with and without caps), the Middle East, religious fanaticism of many stripes, and the seven veils of self-deception. Salome, skinny legs and all, belly-dances rapturously at Isaac & Ishmael's, a much-molested restaurant located across the street from the U.N., founded by an Arab and a Jew as an example of happy, peaceful and mutually beneficial coexistence. Ellen Cherry Charles, artist and waitress, heir to the most positive legacy of Jezebel, works at the same joint, nursing a broken heart inflicted by Boomer Petway, redneck welder/bemused darling of the New York art scene. Meanwhile, Can o' Beans, Dirty Sock, Spoon, Painted Stick and Conch Shell traverse half the world on a hejira to Jerusalem—where Conch and Painted Stick will resume religious duties in the Third Temple, dedicated (of course) to Astarte. Unless, mind you, Ellen Cherry's boil-encrusted uncle Buddy, a radio evangelist who gets turned on by Tammy Faye Bakker, manages to start WW III first.... Robbins's lust for laughs is undiminished; this prescription for sanity couldn't be better.
Publishers Weekly

A painter's struggle with her art, a restaurant opened as an experiment in brotherhood, the journey of several inanimate objects to Jerusalem, a preacher's scheme to hasten Armageddon, and a performance of a legendary dance: these are the diverse elements around which Robbins has built this wild, controversial novel. Ellen Cherry Charles, one of the "Daughters of the Daily Special" from Robbin's previous Jitterbug Perfume, takes center stage. She has married Boomer Petway and moved to New York, hoping to make it as a painter. Instead, she winds up a waitress at the Isaac and Ishmael, a restaurant co-owned by an Arab and a Jew. Robbins's primary concern is Middle Eastern politics, supplemented along the way with observations on art, religion, sex, and money. Few contemporary novelists mix tomfoolery and philosophy so well. This is Robbins at his best.
Library Journal

Discussion Questions
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for Skinny Legs and All:

1. Robbins uses the Dance of the Seven Veils as the structure of his novel. Identify and talk about the seven self-deceptions that he sees humans living under.

2. In what way is the biblical Jezebel significant to Ellen Cherry Charles?

3. What is true art? How does the New York art scene misrepresent the artistic ideal? Who represents the ideal in this novel and in what way? Consider this quotation: "In the haunted house of life, art is the only stair that doesn't creak." Who says it and what does it mean?

4. Why would Robbins's use inanimate objects, like a can of beans, a sock, and a stick?

5. How does this story comment on the state of human affairs—what is Robbins overall view of our ability to solve our political and religious differences? Consider Issac and Ishmael, the two men who own the cafe in New York.

6. Who or what does Buddy represent?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.) 

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