The small pleasures of Baxter's stories (Through the Safety Net, 1985) here come together in an ingenious novel of devastating intellectual force--a fiction as rich and complex as any being written today. And Baxter pursues his tough-minded ideas--steeled as they are by paradox and contradiction--without ever losing sight of the quieter truths revealed in ordinary lives. This carefully wrought narrative begins with a relatively simple tableau--a short story, in effect, that keeps growing as it moves backwards in time, with each chapter adding shadow to the first light. And those initial impressions concern a brother and sister who reunite one 4th of July in their hometown in backwoods Michigan. Hugh Welch, a car salesman and homebody, is also a ""frustrated priest,"" as his sister, Dorsey, accuses. She's an astrophysicist who shows up to this little family gathering with her deaf son, Noah, and her actor-husband, Simon, who's not the father of this angelic boy. The initial tension between Simon and Hugh represents a struggle between a consummate thespian--a man without an integrated self--and a dull and diligent soul who is also ""a soldier in the army of tenderness."" Simon's free-floating irony and compulsive sarcasm mock decency and wisdom, and break the sacramental silence shared by Hugh and his adoring nephew. Dorsey, under the spell of her studies, at one point compels everyone to ""imagine time reversed."" And the novel responds for us with its blocks of recaptured past--a truly Proustian effort that introduces Carlo Pavorese, the aging physics professor, who fathered Noah, and is a nuclear-age Jeremiah, warning about scientific excess, for he had a hand in ""the first light"" at Los Alamos; and Hugh and Dorsey's parents, the loving, funny, and skeptical small-town folk who take us back to another moment bathed in light--Dorsey's birth. Baxter's physics, not at all Pynchon-obscure, grasps a kind of unbearable light--one that illuminates both creation and destruction. Generous and in the American grain, Baxter also rises to the world-historical occasion--a miraculous feat indeed.