Tom Robbins' latest intellectual/hyper-sexual tall tale starts off as a fairy tale about a farmer's daughter and Tanuki, a Japanese spirit-god with sybaritic appetites of monstrous proportions, and the physiology to match. In Japanese folklore, tanukis (raccoon-like wild animals most closely related to dogs) are shape-changers and tricksters, second only to foxes in their mischief-making, mortal-baiting games. In Robbins' short novel Villa Incognito, the original Tanuki, who dares to anger the gods in order to try something new, is the heart of a fable that's so lively, dramatic, and touching that it's actually disappointing when Robbins sets it aside and returns to his usual material: a contemporary, continent-hopping story involving a tanuki trainer in a traveling circus, a sputtering CIA psychopath, two towns that traded places, a bar-hopping Asian Elvis impersonator, and three expatriate American soldiers who deserted their unit toward the end of the Vietnam War, and are now indulging their own sybaritic appetites in contemporary Laos. Villa Incognito barely tops 200 pages, so Robbins doesn't give himself much space to develop the sprawling plot and philosophical barrages of earlier books like Even Cowgirls Get The Blues and, most recently, Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates. But instead of shooting for a simpler or more straightforward book, he pares his many plot threads down to monofilament wires that sometimes cut deep, but don't always bear weight. Robbins takes his own sweet time in clearing up the mystery of the connections between his far-flung protagonists, and he fills the spaces between with sly commentary on everything from quotidian time to religious etymology. As usual, his observations are both trenchant and entertaining, but as ephemeral as fortune-cookie sayings. Villa Incognito never fully develops most of its characters and many of its themes: In particular, the sisters of one of the Vietnam vets crop up repeatedly, but only so Robbins can comment repetitively on their quirks (one's sexually attracted to clowns, the other thinks seasons and the weather are "adorable"), while the vets themselves, though central to the whole whirling-dervish story, barely make it past the cardboard-cutout stage. Their ringleader, a bearish, tiger-tattooed man who spouts erudition and self-proclaimed bullshit simultaneously and near-constantly, is a classic Robbins character: a sexual dynamo, a Cristal-sipping gourmet, and an amoral philosopher and teacher who's simultaneously romantic, pragmatic, Socratic, and solipsistic. But on this crowded stage, he gets so few lines that he amounts to a background prop, lost among all the other little bits of stagecraft that occasionally pretend to be characters. Typical of Robbins' work, Villa Incognito is unpredictable and enjoyably excessive, and it makes an entertaining stab at being enlightening, as well. But for all its joyous fun, it's too short and slight to measure up to Robbins' best work. At this brief length, his tangled plot barely has time to fall together before it suddenly falls apart.