The son of two orphans, Armstrong set out to find his parents' families and uncovered not only their turbulent histories but clues to their personalities (and his) as well--a private accomplishment with little extension. The search itself was relatively easy--both knew something of their circumstances--and a highly receptive great-aunt put flesh on the skeletons in and out of the closet. From one household after another gruesome stories emerge: a circus strongman who turned to murder and suicide in the front hall; a great-grandfather who raped all his daughters; shotgun marriages and sudden abandonments; a foster mother with a Pierce Arrow and vicious threats for misbehavior; a much-married, reckless grandmother (""She must have had a hot box somewhere,"" one old-timer recalls). As Armstrong intercuts from past to present, from shadowed reminiscences to troubling encounters with his own parents and children, he reconstructs and broods and flounders around for meaning. It was a discouraging experience for him, except for newlymet Aunt Ina and a warming relationship with his long-remote father; but his mother, who lost her father at six and her mother at nine, begged that he discontinue his snooping--her early memories were too painful to disinter. Pretentious in parts, entertaining or moving in others, with a happier ending for the author and limited returns for the reader.