Abraham Gottenberg is a turn-of-the-century Nebraska general practitioner who's ""always getting sidetracked by his patients' stories, which was why he felt he was not a good doctor."" So when Abraham returns home in 1909 after having heard Freud lecture at the Clark University in Massachusetts, he tells his sons--Jacob and Hermann, both doctors as well--that he's going to found a mental health clinic right on the spot, in the little town of Galilee. But this story, seemingly inspired by that of the real-life Menningers, focuses less on the clinic idea than on the conflict of personalities that go into its creation. Jacob and Hermann, although both trained in psychiatry, are almost Biblical antipodes: Hermann is super-serious, compulsive, rational, in-drawn; Jacob is playful, eccentric, catholic in taste, intrigued by the irrational (""Everywhere, except among civilized nations, people we'd lock up in the Main House are revered as shamans and seers""). So all through their lives, even into old age, the brothers square off, often even wrestling physically--while cousin Miriam, who briefly stayed with them during childhood, returns as an adult psychiatrist to work in the clinic, loving the increasingly free-spirited Jacob but marrying the stolid Hermann. (Their child, however, third-generation psychiatrist Joseph, validates his uncle's imagination by doing sex research Ã la Kinsey and ESP research Ã la Rhine.) As readers of Like Father or The King of Fifth Avenue know, versatile writer Black is skillful with scenes of intimacy--sex, conversation, gestures; and he's gifted at startling, revealing narrative similes. Here, however, without some built-in narrative sweep, these talents for closeup seem something of a liability: there's no momentum in the telling, no follow-through on intriguing matters--with too many lapses into mere bizarreness. (Joseph's peep-hole sex research, for instance, slides over into the ludicrous.) By the end, in fact, the novel seems barely held together, the best scenes--Abraham's initial fascination with psychology, the actual cases of the clinic, an ESP experiment involving the reluctant Hermann--too sketchy, the weakest scenes too prominent. And the result is a diluted book with special wonderfulness only now and then--and dabs of information for those interested in the history of US psychiatry.