A probing and powerful but relentlessly blow-by-blow study of a North Carolina family in crisis during the 1950's, as a man's dreams fail to reconcile themselves with his fatherly duties--in a third novel from Payne (Early From the Dance, 1989; Confessions of a Taoist on Wall Street, 1984). Told from three points of view--father Jimmy's, mother May's, and son Joey's--the Madden family saga unfolds from the moment of separation, when Jimmy fails to join the others at their Outer Banks cottage in the summer of Joey's 12th year. The roots of this event are in the time when Joey was conceived--a love child of two teenagers with bright plans for their future. Marriage and the infant disrupt Jimmy's vision of life as a doctor/writer, forcing him instead to work for May's father in the tobacco wholesaling business. Resentment builds on both sides over the years, as he seems to lose all desire to better himself while May grows ever more enamored of her heritage; Jimmy's path leads him to philandering and booze, and finally to a fatal night when he drops $10,000 at cards. Banished from his home, he loses what little self-respect remains--until his father-in-law steps in with choice words upon learning that Jimmy plans to kill himself. Reconciliation follows, but the seeds of dissolution have been too well sown; even saving Joey from drowning on his first deep-sea fishing trip can't transform Jimmy into the reliable father everyone wants him to be. No heartstring is left unplucked in this emotional feast, but the melodramatic excess is accompanied by moments of profound psychological insight and strikingly visual prose, making the story at once painful to endure and difficult to put down.