An ambitious first novel by literary scholar Herron that sets out to create, in established epic form, a mythic exploration of traditional institutions and racial identity in America. Divided into 24 books, the story alternates between passages of incantatory prose and the more realistic account of the Snowdon family, whose tragic legacy is meant to parallel that of other great mythic families. The Washington, D.C., Snowdon family is affluent and black; father John Christian is a noted heart surgeon; wife Camille, beautiful but passive, tends her roses; and the three daughters--Cynthia Jane, Patricia, and Eva--lead privileged lives of expensive schools and travel. But a family chosen for an epic role must suffer some monstrous flaw or tragedy, and the Snowdons, sensitive and gifted as they all are, certainly do. Father John Christian and daughter Patricia love each other too much, and their daughter, Johnnie, is born. Sister Eva, also incestuous in her own innocent way, is raped and goes temporarily mad; and deeply religious Cynthia Jane flees her family to become a nun. Meanwhile, Johnnie, mute for the first 14 years of her life, lives secretly with her mother in Georgetown. But when Patricia, overwhelmed by her bleak visions, drowns herself in the Potomac, Johnnie sets off on a mini-odyssey to find out the truth about granddad/daddy, the two aunts, and grandmother Camille, who watched it all happen. And because this is more than a story about a troubled family, an apocalypse is hinted at, the past is revisited, and Johnnie is ``condemned to immortality'' as a light haunting a destroyed Washington. Vividly written and bold in concept, but the thematic intentions here are too strained and the story not quite up to it. Herron has tried to do too much.