First-novelist Eakins (The Hungry Girls & Other Stories—not reviewed) received the NYU Press Prize for this account of an 18th- century slave who becomes an autodidact, a philosopher, a castaway, and a mother and father both. Try, if you might, to imagine Robinson Crusoe's Friday with Tristram Shandy's education—and without Robinson Crusoe—and you—ll get some notion of what to expect in Eakins's rather audacious tale. It's narrated by one Pierre Baptiste de Buffon, an African slave who has spent most of his life in the Caribbean islands during the years leading up to the French Revolution. Pierre was purchased by an erudite and forward-thinking landowner who—in defiance of both law and custom—taught him how to read and write and eventually made him the manager of one of his estates. About as privileged as a slave could be, Pierre studied philosophy, science, and literature, and was able to converse with his master's peers as an intellectual (if not a social) equal. He learned from them that a Revolution proclaiming the equality of all was convulsing France and threatening to spread across Europe. Determined to see at firsthand what was happening, Pierre ran away and tried to float across the Atlantic in a rum cask—only to run aground on an uninhabited island. Here the story turns into a veritable bestiary of the weird and unexpected. The impractical Pierre is hard-pressed to survive in the wild until he catches a wounded mermaid and nurses her back to health. She repays his charity by coming ashore each day and vomiting fish into his mouth. Eventually, Pierre discovers himself pregnant, and in due course he delivers four new "creatures" into the world. Presiding over this odd family, Pierre tames his island wilderness and tries to complete his "CYCLOPEDISH HISTOIRE OF GUINEE AND BEYOND" (i.e., the story of his life), which will probably go on for quite some time—if it's ever finished at all. Bizarre, marvelous, and horrifying at once: a refreshing escape from the mundane.
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