Bauer's second novel (after Dexterity, 1989) plays with two durable American themes: the national fondness for snake oil and self-made men. This engaging and episodic romp through the first half of the 20th-century is lighter, more accessible, and far more commercial than Bauer's lyrically intense debut. Born on the Texas frontier at the turn of the century, Luther Mathias witnesses his mother's fevered madness and death, only to be abandoned by his roustabout father at ten. Young Luther joins his uncle's traveling medicine show and proves a quick study. He's garrulous and charming, deriving his talent from his knowledge of the Bible and his uncle's highfalutin lingo. But at 13, Luther grows disillusioned with his uncle's scam. When he leaves the show at 17, Luther survives by his wits, eventually acquiring a mail- order medical degree and setting up practice in a Texas bordertown as a specialist in VD cures. All this changes when beautiful movie starlet Alyce Rae stumbles into town with a case of amnesia, soon followed by her vain husband, silent movie star Billy Boswell. The neurotic Billy provides Luther with his first experiment in a new specialty: cures for impotency. And when Billy summons Luther to Hollywood for a second treatment, a meeting with media magnate Haskell Albright leads to new opportunities. Luther--part Gatsby, part Citizen Cane--begins building his corn-pone empire based on the Bible, positive thinking, and healthy sex. A radio show and a clinic back in Texas allow Luther to build his tumbleweed Xanadu, all the time dreaming of his Daisy named Alyce. With Billy's tragic fall from studio grace and numerous business problems, Luther begins to see his world crumble. It's a classic tragedy of hubris, even though Luther seems to be headed off for new adventures at the end. An imaginative lark in the Doctorow vein (without the didacticism): rough-and-tumble fiction that exults in its inventiveness and seems written with an eye toward the big screen.