cover image The Legend of the Barefoot Mailman

The Legend of the Barefoot Mailman

John Henry Fleming. Faber & Faber, $21.95 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-571-19879-5

Striving to blend its series of picaresque adventures with more serious themes about the American frontier, this first novel doesn't quite have the tonal range to pull it off. Fleming tells of the legend of Florida's ``Barefoot Mailman''--a white child who was marooned and raised by Indians and honors his foster people by performing his job unshod. That's the legend. The real story comes from Brooklyn, in the person of an Austrian immigrant named Josef Steinmetz who, after the Civil War, moves to the backwater town of Figulus, Fla., to cultivate citrus fruits. An unlikely string of events culminates with Josef burning down his orchard and accepting a job as a postal carrier: his only duty is to carry the mail from Figulus to the resort town of Biscayne and back, a distance of 60 miles along a barren beach. To honor the memory of his late uncle (whose last act of kindness was to purchase for Josef a pair of loafers that have been lost in the mail), he performs this task barefoot. Once. During which time he's captured by Indians, rescued by brigands whose real interest is ransoming him themselves and suffers from a case of heat exposure so bad it lands him in the hospital. That one time, however, is enough to catch the eye of a newspaper reporter from New York, who writes a fictive article on the ``Barefoot Mailman.'' The legend is carried on by Earl Shank, postmaster of Figulus and dreamer of big dreams, who, shortly after Josef's departure, receives the loafers. As befits a tall tale, the characters are broadly drawn. But too many metaphors and ideas remain unplumbed, and too often the humor cuts against the grain of plot situations that demand more texture. (Jan.)