The Legend of the Barefoot Mailman
By John Henry Fleming
Faber & Faber Inc.
216 pp., $21.95
Behind the Scenes at the Museum
By Kate Atkinson
St. Martin's Press
332 pp., $22.95
The Romance Reader
By Pearl Abraham
296 pp., $21.96
Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers
By Lois-Ann Yamanaka
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. …