The book club selection this time around is Skinny Legs and All, by Tom Robbins. Overall, a good pick.
I was turned on to Tom Robbins in high school. High school and college is probably the perfect time to read him; the mix of zany characters, surreal plots, delving philosophy, and (last but not least) racy sex is irresistible to young people trying to figure out what life is all about. Lots of people use his books as a litmus test for prospective boyfriends or girlfriends – "If he likes this, then I know we're compatible." At least, that's how I was initiated into Robbins fandom. His books (Jitterbug Perfume, Another Roadside Attraction) affected me, giving me a vision of life in which people could live boldly, unafraid, full of intensity and liberated from religious dogma. I was affected, but not entirely convinced; I was enough of a prude then (and even now) to be suspicious of his glorification of sex, and still too early in my spiritual development to accept his blanket denunciations of religion.
Tom Robbins affects people in much the same way as Kurt Vonnegut, although with an entirely different flavor. Both create fantastical characters in ludicrous situations, and somehow make it all seem appropriate. Both us humor to grease the wheels of their philosophies. Vonnegut seasons his dishes with tragedy and unvarnished truth, which oddly enough makes him both funnier and more compelling. Robbins seasons heavily with sex and a prose style that does death-defying tricks (kids, don't try this at home). Both authors manage to change people's opinions about life. Both inspire writers to mimic their style. With both, I recommend that people read their books, but limit yourself to one per year at most. Like potato chips, the taste is wonderful, but you can easily overwhelm your palate with too much.
I could tell you the plot of Skinny Legs and All, but that wouldn't really be telling you much. The books are about the characters and their thoughts, and the language. I had read that Robbins writes one sentence at a time, polishing each to a high shine and then abandoning it for the next one, and often with no idea of where he's heading. It figures. Each of Robbins sentences contains its own literary, artistic, philosophic, and humorous payload; you rarely get bored, because you don't have to wait long for the payoff. Like this description of New York on an early spring evening:
The unfinished and unfinishable symphony to which they move is composed of salsa, rap, and funk from boom boxes, strains of Vivaldi sifting out in silvery drizzle from fine restaurants and limousines, the sophisticated rhythms produced by Cole Porter's phantom cigarette holder tapping upon the vertebrae of tourists and businessmen in hotel lobbies throughout midtown, fey techno-rock in SoHo bars and art lofts, drum solos banged out on plastic pails and refrigerator trays by brilliant buskers, androgynous anchorpersons announcing the "news," a loud screeching of truck and bus wheels, an interminable red bawling of sirens, the tooting of taxis, an occasional gunshot or scream, girlish laughter, boyish boasts, barking dogs, the whine of aggressive beggars, the yowls of the unsheltered insane, and on many a street corner, the greased-lung exhortations of evangelists, ordained or self-proclaimed, warning all who pass that this could be the last April that God will ever grant, as if April were a kitten and God an angry farmer with a sack.
But the premise, for what's worth: an aspiring artist from the South and her welder husband move to New York, where they become haphazard participants in plots to save (or destroy) Jerusalem. The plot includes greasy evangelists, a Jewish-Arab team of restauranteurs, inanimate objects brought to life by ancient Phoenician artifacts, and young belly-dancer who calls herself Salome. As many a back-cover blurb might say, it's "a fun ride."
The book has its philosophic points to make – the perils of religious dogma, the purpose of art, the meaning of life – and I suppose Robbins does a good job with them, though towards the end he pulls a deus ex machina plot twist to excuse an extended philosophic brain dump. By exploring the history of Jerusalem, he puts a spin on the Middle East that I had never read before. He shows the pagan roots that preceded both Judaism and Islam, in an attempt to do the impossible: get Arabs and Jews to lighten up, already. I have my own beefs with Robbins philosophy, which I'll come back to, but on the most important things he gets it right. Here's a keeper, one for the SKS Quote of the Week archives:
Was there a more difficult lesson for a human being to learn, a paradox harder to accept? Even though the great emotions, the great truths, were universal; even though the mind of humanity was ultimately one mind, still, each and every single individual had to establish his or her own special , personal, particular, unique, direct, one-on-one, hands-on relationship with reality, with the universe, with the Divine. It might be complicated, it might be a pain in the ass, it might be, most of all, lonely -- but it was the bottom line. It was as different for everybody as it was the same, so everybody had to take control of their own life, define their own death, and construct their own salvation. And when you finished, you didn't call the Messiah. He'd call you.