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The Legend of the Barefoot Mailman

By John Henry Fleming

Faber & Faber Inc.

216 pp., $21.95

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By Kate Atkinson

St. Martin's Press

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By Pearl Abraham

Riverhead Books/Putnam

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Farrar Straus Giroux

278 pp., $20

Discovered by the Fountain-of-Youth-seeking Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon in 1513, Florida remained largely undiscovered by vacationers and real estate developers for another 400 years. Even as late as the last decade of the 19th century, the lush, semitropical peninsula in the southeastern corner of the United States had much in common with the Wild West.

The sparsely populated jungles and beaches of unspoiled (though also unair-conditioned) south Florida, circa 1890, are the setting of John Henry Fleming's gem of a first novel, "The Legend of the Barefoot Mailman." There was in fact (as the reader is informed in a brief prefatory note) a hardy breed of postal carriers who plied their trade on foot, serving a handful of isolated settlers stretched out over miles of desolate, roadless beach routes in the general vicinity of what later became Miami.

How this wild, beautiful, steamy territory was transformed into the site of a booming tourist industry is part of the "legend" that unfolds in these pages.

Fleming's delightfully far-fetched tale begins when a deeply disgruntled mail carrier angrily tosses one of his parcels into the sea. This parcel, as we later learn, contains a handsome pair of handmade leather shoes sent to an idealistic young settler by his loving relatives back in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Young Josef Steinmetz and his pretty bride have just arrived in the tiny Florida town of Figulus (pop. 27) where Josef, who was born in Austria and who spent his young manhood in Brooklyn, now hopes to prove himself a true American pioneer. He is trying to start a citrus farm. His wife, appalled by Florida's insects, spends most of her time wrapped in mosquito netting, begging to return to Brooklyn.

Josef's attempts to locate his missing shoes bring him into contact with Figulus's postmaster, Earl Shanks. From this encounter, a sequence of improbable events develops and a legend is born, willy-nilly. In a town populated mostly by hapless ne'er-do-wells who've run out of steam, Earl is one man who still dreams of achieving great things, even if he's not exactly sure what great things.

Earl, we're told, "was a man mediocre in every way. This he knew, and yet he'd always held his mediocrity itself in high regard.... He'd used to believe that mediocrity, idleness, and a faith in the value of the imperfect were all a man needed for success. He'd used to think that that would be the moral of his autobiography, should the public demand he write one." Earl, a veritable prince of mediocrity, can see that Josef is something special. But just how this "specialness" ultimately puts the town of Figulus on the map is a complicated and zany story.

In the grand tradition of the American tall tale, "The Legend of the Barefoot Mailman" is filled with action-packed scenes involving fistfights, scavengers, shipwrecks, Seminole Indians, and rescues, deftly narrated in a wry, tongue-in-cheek style reminiscent of Mark Twain or Ambrose Bierce.

The satiric thrusts are shrewd, yet good-natured, the characters agreeably wacky, and Fleming's prose is not only first-rate but ingeniously evocative of 19th-century American parlance.

From England, more specifically the cathedral city of York, comes an ambitious, exuberant first novel that takes the form of a young woman narrating her autobiography, starting with the moment of her conception and dipping into past generations of her family while moving forward through her own girlhood. …

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