An occasionally imaginative and more frequently turgid first novel by a poet-playwright whose verbal skills can't disguise the fact that his half-human protagonist is an all-too-familiar melodramatic type. The self-styled Leopard Man narrates in discontinuous fragments his experiences as a child in a Catholic orphanage (where he's told ``Our Lord works in mysterious ways, but none more mysterious than you''), as the protÇgÇ of a Pan-African black academic, and in a traveling carnival (``The Eight Human Wonders of the World'') that displays weird and frightening freaks of nature, such as himself. The novel is initially off-putting because its disjointed chronology obscures his origins and growth, but things gradually intensify as we learn he was the illegitimate son of a prostitute and born in a brothel, and realize that his image of himself as a magnificent jungle creature may be no more than a compensatory psychosis. But Steinberg unwisely tries to have it both ways, emphasizing both the Leopard Man's involuted dreaminess and the terrified reactions of others to his (presumably literal) fur and fangs. Is he deranged, or is he indeed a mutant life-form? The very ambiguity might be effective were it not for Steinberg's overreliance on patently symbolic plot elements (such as the furtive releasing of animals from a zoo) and orotund rhetorical palaver (the L.M. and his acquaintances say far too many things like ``What is the truth of my life?'' and ``What is the lion's roar to a river's stone?''). The best moments here occur when the protagonist briefly, inconclusively connects with ``other'' humans (his late-night encounter with a rape victim who believes wild animals must be taught to coexist peacefully has a resonance that is unfortunately left undeveloped). One hopes that Steinberg will next apply his talents to more promising material. In this case, the nature of the beast just isn't that interesting.