Painter-storyteller Ari's first novel is a true original, with roots in Jewish mysticism and Yiddish folklore: the picaresque tale of an 18th-century Polish shoemaker who follows his dreams no matter how grave or absurd they become. His parents' deaths in a Warsaw pogrom leave Meir at the mercy of his sister Yetta (who elopes as soon as he's old enough to fend for himself), his uncle Mottle, and Mottle's wife Flanka, a whirlwind cleaner obsessed by a mystic vision that commanded her simply, ``Boil!'' Betrothed by Rabbi Zaydle with the rabbi's servant Rachel- -it's a perfect match: she was orphaned in the same pogrom--Meir nonetheless gets the idea of leaving town to go seek the Baal Shem Tov, the revered mystical teacher of Medzhibozh. (Rachel's reaction to her departing fiancÇ: ``You're inventing your life. How exciting!'') Along the way there'll be run-ins with the fishmonger of Lublin, who'll answer any question if you buy a fish (``One fish, one question''); with the clay man of Pupekle, cursed, like Meir, by the divine brand that governs his movements; with Sarah, the candlemaker's daughter in Lvov who makes Meir forget about Rachel; and with Meir's crazy old sidekick Israel, who's convinced that he's invisible and that Meir's a shipmaker. It's clear what's going to happen when Meir finally meets the Baal Shem Tov, but Ari's bag of tricks and transformations is still bulging, as Mottle and his new wife turn into a tree, Luckshinkopf the fool wastes away ``until he falls entirely into the pail,'' and Meir, whose shoes for all his customers have increasingly shown minds of their own, passes the time after his return to Warsaw building a boat in the shape of a giant shoe. Extravagant, charming, and deeply serious in its matter-of-fact mingling of moral history, prophecy, and magic.