A strange little story, set in 1939, about handsome, good Alex Temple, foreman at the Celestial Mine in West Virginia. The first half of the book tells what happens to Alex and his crew of 13 (including himself) when a mine explosion traps them in the dangerous, rat-infested depths: the men (a contrived mix of ethnic types) tell stories to pass the time, Canterbury-Tales style--about gambling, about tragic romance, about mining, about the Czar of Russia (""Young Nicholas and I run around together,"" begins miner Sergei Svetowski); Alex himself lectures on coal-mine conditions and broods over evil crewman Ralph, who lusts after Alex's wife and may be about to kill him; and finally Ralph ignores Alex's advice and tries to escape the mine alone, dying of black damp while Alex leads the others to safety. So Alex becomes a hero--the publicity of which brings a letter from his long-lost Aunt Martha Matilda, a rich Maryland landowner who promptly dies, leaving Alex with extensive information on his ancestors (English kings, poets, etc.) as well as her vast estate. And Alex, moving to Maryland with wife Karen and baby, becomes obsessed with ancestry, builds a replica-castle (which makes a fortune as people pay to visit or even build feudal cottages nearby), and is seduced into adultery with his cousin Rowena-whose husband takes revenge by forging evidence to prove that Alex isn't a royally-descended Temple after all. Will Alex, now suddenly miserable, ever regain his ""love of life""? Though first-novelist Martell promises a sequel, few readers will be especially eager to find out. Still, there are some moments of offbeat charm in the odd blend--folksy and stiffly formal--of Martell's quirky fable; and some of the eccentric, fiat, digressive dialogue suggests a Vonnegut in the raw: ""I guess I can call her Leonainie. That isn't her real name. But she reminds me of a poem that James Whitcomb Riley wrote. And I'll tell you the poem, a little later, if I can think of all the words, and if you want to hear it."" A curious, often dull or amateurish, but not altogether uninteresting item.