Episodes--stylishly written yet often dullish and ineptly paced--from the life of narrator Pyrrhus Venture, born a slave in 1751 St. Kitts but later a longtime resident of Falmouth (Portland), Maine. The brief first section is completely diverting, and seems to promise strong picaresque doings ahead: young Pyrrhus, property of merchant Tiberius Fitzgore, is tutored along with Fitzgore's nephew, even becoming his master's elegantly-educated protÃ‰gÃ‰; but when Fitzgore dies, the slimy nephew cheats Pyrrhus out of his inheritance, forcing him to flee. . . into the hands of a slave-dealer. So Pyrrhus soon finds himself bought by decent Captain William Ross from Falmouth--where Pyrrhus arrives after a sturdy adventure or two. Then, however, in a long section (nearly half the novel) appropriately entitled ""The Shadow,"" Pyrrhus steps largely to one side, narrating the slow, only half-engaging story of Captain Ross' attempts to remain neutral through Falmouth's Tory/Liberty clashes in the 1770s: Ross' new wife Elizabeth (who's something of a sexual tease with Pyrrhus) is the sister of a leading Tory; Ross quietly provides some nautical help to the patriots; Pyrrhus himself, who courts freedwoman Sarah, hopes the Revolution may hasten his freedom--though he's skeptical. And the final, disjointed section starts by jumping from the British destruction of Falmouth to 1791 Portland, where Pyrrhus is now a free, well-to-do merchant with wife Sarah and son Ben. Amid ill-managed flashbacks to still more Revolutionary episodes, we learn that Pyrrhus is nonetheless bitter over racial discrimination (""In Portland. . . men were created equal only insofar as they were useful""); he's attracted by a white Frenchman's scheme to join the populist movement in Haiti. (""That dream needed me now, the dream of one island, one people. . . ."") But Sarah becomes ill en route, son Ben later runs away to sea--so Pyrrhus is last seen in 1817, bringing his grandson home from Liberia (where Ben has died), blaming himself for neglecting his family and nursing illusions of a black Utopia: ""I shut them out of my life because I was not all that I wanted to be."" Unfortunately, however, this introspective character-denouement is only sketchily related to what has gone before; the entire novel, in fact, seems to lack a consistent viewpoint or thoughtful development. And the result is a lopsided patchwork-quilt of a book--with occasional charms, cultivated prose, and special appeal for devotees of Revolutionary War sidelight-history.