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New Voices Spin Tales of Fiction, Mostly Fiction

From historic England to Hasidic Judaism to Hawaiian Creole, first-time novelists focus on stories worth telling - their own

The Legend of the Barefoot Mailman

By John Henry Fleming

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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

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By Pearl Abraham

Riverhead Books/Putnam

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.

The narrator of Kate Atkinson's "Behind the Scenes at the Museum" is Ruby Lennox, youngest daughter of a family that lives "above the shop," in this case, a pet shop. Dad is a hard-drinking skirt chaser, Mom a mean-spirited bundle of resentments, big sister Patricia a model of moral and scholastic rectitude, and middle sister Gillian a bratty egotist. As for Ruby - she is, in her own words, "alive ... a precious jewel ... a drop of blood," with an uncanny ability to perceive and describe everything going on around her, even before she is born!

It doesn't take the fetal Ruby very long to notice - with some dismay - that she is not an eagerly anticipated arrival. "Still, never mind - the sun is high in the sky and it's going to be a beautiful day again," remarks the optimistic embryo. "The future is like a cupboard full of light and all you have to do is find the key that opens the door." Birth, however, proves difficult: "My tender skin, as yet untouched by any earthly atmosphere, is being chafed by this sausage-making process. (Surely this can't be natural?)"

Ruby's young life, growing up in England in the 1950s and '60s, is interspersed with vignettes from the lives of her mother, aunt, grandmother, and great-grandmother. Going backward and forward in time, Ruby's vivacious, tartly funny narrative manages to include some of the main events of the past century: two world wars, bombing raids, lost brothers and sweethearts, the coronation of Elizabeth II, the lure of Elvis and the Beatles.

Despite Ruby's evident cheerfulness, it is not a pretty story: Bickering, neglectful parents, sudden deaths, reversals of fortune, and broken hearts abound, but all are conveyed in a brisk, breezy style that at times conceals bitterness beneath a mask of blitheness.

Well received in England, where it won the Whitbread award, "Behind the Scenes at the Museum" may be a little too relentlessly flippant for some tastes, and not quite as brilliantly written as all that (I squirmed at a few grammatical faux pas). But it marks the debut of a distinctive new voice that should appeal to readers who enjoy the panache of a Fay Weldon or the witty inventiveness of a Carol Shields. And it strikes a nice balance between fantasy and reality.

Thinly disguised autobiography is certainly a prevalent mode among first-time novelists, and even those who do not go on to achieve further fame in literature often have at least one story - their own - that is worth telling.

In "The Romance Reader," Pearl Abraham, who grew up in an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish family, offers an exceptionally moving, funny, and finely shaded account of a bright young girl coming of age in the walled-off world of this intensely restrictive sect. Rachel Benjamin is the teenage daughter of a poor, mystically inclined Hasidic rabbi who is trying to establish his own synagogue in a tiny town in upstate New York.

Rachel's world is defined by what her parents forbid her to do: eat nonkosher food, wear short skirts or sheer stockings, read English-language books, have a library card, or study Hasidic lore with her brothers. She is being prepared for future wifedom and motherhood in what will be an arranged marriage. But Rachel is secretly imagining an alternative way of life gleaned from the romance novels she smuggles home from the library.

Fascinating in and of itself, Abraham's depiction of Hasidic life has added resonance at a time when people of many faiths have been drawn to fundamentalism. But what makes this novel truly engrossing is not its subject matter but the insight and sensitivity Abraham displays in portraying this loving yet troubled family, its joys, its tensions, its sorrows.

The voice that speaks in Lois-Ann Yamanaka's "Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers" belongs to a Japanese-American girl growing up in Hawaii: Lovey Nariyoshi. Lovey is the latest in the recent deluge of non-WASP heroines who play with Barbie dolls and aspire in vain to this plastic ideal. Lovey's family is poor. Her home does not resemble the households she sees on television.

At school, her teacher (depicted as an insensitive imperialist) tries to force her and her classmates, who speak a sort of pidgin, to use standard English. Feisty Lovey refuses to submit and clearly wins out in the end by writing most of her story (i.e., this novel) in "Hawaiian Creole."

The problem with this first novel is not merely that the subject of hyphenated-American protagonists who feel excluded has become more of a staple than the theme of boy-meets-girl or country-kid-comes-to-the-city. A good writer can invest the tritest theme with a freshness that makes it all seem to be happening for the first time. Yamanaka is not a bad writer, and her book has its moments. But on the whole, it is little more than a string of anecdotes serving up the usual teen angst with a slightly crude tang of resentment.

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