Viva Hardigg
May 02, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

In Tom Robbins’ second novel, ”Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” his heroine, Sissy Hankshaw, possesses enormous thumbs, making her a born hitchhiker. Twenty-seven years later, in Villa Incognito, Tanuki, a mischievous, badgerlike creature popular in Japanese folklore, also boasts an oversize appendage that aids in self-transport. In the novel’s opening scene, Tanuki unfurls his massive scrotum as a parachute and flees earthward from a council of gods furious with his misdeeds. Fans of Japanese animation may sense familiar ground. In Isao Takahata’s 1994 film ”Heisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko,” a tanuki uses his scrotum in the same manner in a suicide attack.

Artistic borrowing aside, Robbins’ singular fancy produces vivid imagery that pops off the page with cartoon clarity. He excels at bringing inanimate material to life, beginning the book with a chronicle of Tanuki’s bestial prowl after nubile youth and sake. In Robbins’ fecund imagination, even precipitation has personality: ”A few snowflakes began to fall, falling slowly, very slowly, taking their time, as if waiting for Tanuki — or anybody — to notice them; as if stalling until some wonderstruck bystander might remark on their beauty and how no two snowflakes are ever exactly alike. At what point, it’s fair to ask, did snowflakes start believing their own publicity?”

Less fortunately, Robbins’ presentation of ideas — forever tie-dyed in 1960s sentiment — can also be cartoonlike. If each of his novels were a VW bus, the same stickers would plaster every bumper: ”Challenge Authority!” ”Legalize Drugs!” ”Nietzsche on Board!” ”Free Love!” In his effort to discredit Judeo-Christianity, capitalism, and the Drug Enforcement Administration, Robbins can get mired in placard-like platitudes: ”’Soul’ is not even that Crackerjack prize that God and Satan scuffle over after the worms have all licked our bones,” says the author’s stand-in during a tiresome multipage lecture that concludes ”religion is the wrong, if conventional, place to turn” on matters of the soul.

The speaker is Maj. Mars Stubblefield, who, like Tanuki years before, lands on Asian soil by parachute of more prosaic design. He and two fellow American soldiers, Dickie Goldwire and Dern Foley, are MIAs who, after their B-52 bomber disappears over the Laos-Vietnam border in 1973, thumb their noses at a homeland hiding behind ”lipstick democracy and mascara faith.” They opt to remain missing in a Laotian mountain village, one piece of a crazed, kaleidoscopic plot that shuttles between Kyoto, San Francisco, Bangkok, Seattle, and Vientiane, the capital of Laos.

With profits from local horticultural efforts (a.k.a. the opium poppy), the MIAs refurbish ”Villa Incognito,” an abandoned French colonial-style mansion on a rock spire, and for nearly 30 years strive for a kind of hippie Valhalla, with Stubblefield as philosopher-king/drug lord. Among the local hangers-on is the pointy-eared great-granddaughter of Tanuki, who captures the hearts of both Stubblefield and Goldwire.

The narrative gains momentum when Foley, disguised as a priest, is nabbed for drug possession at the Guam airport, placing the secret of the villa in jeopardy. American intelligence authorities fret about the PR scandal of a drug-dealing MIA deserter and contemplate making him ”disappear” again. Debate rages in the CIA, while warnings of an attack on the World Trade Center go unheeded.

A circus-size cadre of minor characters and subplots makes ”Villa Incognito” rich in spectacle but thin on character development. Often Robbins seems more interested in language than temperament. Those who cherish his gift for metaphor, simile, and verbal riffs will revel in their plenitude here. Yet for every bon mot that entertains (”round belly jiggling like a Santa Claus implant”) lurks a heavy-handed attempt that fails (”Dickie’s heart felt suddenly like an iron piano with barbwire strings and scorpions for keys”). But Robbins ultimately courts our indulgence, writing with trademark bohemian insouciance in a rambling tangent on why trees are more useful than humans: ”Trite? Probably, but so what?”

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