While drunk one night, a white plantation-owner and his black butler swap wives--and the result is the birth of Andrew Hawkins, who is raised to be a mulatto mage under the direction of schoolmaster/mystic Ezekiel: ""I was not to touch silver, gold, or paper currency; nor was I allowed to listen to the Mixed Lydian and Hyperlydian Modes in music, lest these melancholy strains foul Ezekiel's plans for what was--in his view--a perfect moral education."" But that moral education is only part of what governs Andrew's picaresque adventures here. Wanting freedom more than learning, he is sent to work for Flo Hatfield, a 50-ish widow with an insatiable taste for her male slaves. (She's also been married eleven times.) And though Andrew becomes Flo's favorite--the previous Lover-Number-One kills himself--she promptly ships him off to a nearby coal-mine when he asks for wages. An escape from the mine quickly follows; Andrew sets off on a series of journeys; he'll marry, pass as white, rescue his first black love Minty, nurse her till she dies from pellagra. But the conclusion here is rushed, and the pacing is ragged--especially once Andrew meets an itinerant philosopher/pathological-killer named Soulcatcher. Worst of all, as Andrew is instructed in the arts of survival (by Soulcatcher and others), Johnson begins loading this novel down with philosophical and literary digressions: tales of writers, publishing, and Indian religion. So, despite intermittent reaffirmations of the talent shown in Faith and the Good Thing (1974), Johnson's potentially rich narrative often becomes garbled in his over-deliberate embroidery--and the result is a sometimes-involving but ultimately disappointing novel, too self-consciously eccentric and discursively intellectual for its own good.