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

April 15, 1990|Tom Clark | Clark's latest book of poems is "Fractured Karma" (Black Sparrow). and

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 \o7 rearrange\f7 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.

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.

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