In recent years, more US banks have perished than at any time since the Great Depression. Virtually all have been allowed to go quietly under, but regulatory authorities have rescued a handful on grounds of public interest. Sprague, a recently retired chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. who was directly involved in four landmark bailouts, here provides a perceptive view of the implications and the mechanics of such large-scale salvage operations. The FDIC's most dramatic rescue mission was the 1984 bailout of Continental Illinois. Sprague shows how the preferential treatment accorded this $41-billion Chicago-based institution was not a special situation, but part of a continuum dating back to 1971. At that time, his agency stepped in to stave off the imminent collapse of Unity Bank, a small black-owned enterprise in the Boston area. The instant justification was ""essentiality,"" a statutory doctrine originally envisioned as applying to rural communities rather than minority groups. In the interim, the FDIC made and arranged loans to Detroit's Bank of the Commonwealth. In 1980, the agency took control at Philadelphia's First Pennsylvania, in the process creating precedents for megabank bailouts. Sprague also reviews a pair of non-starters: Oklahoma City's infamous Penn Square Bank (which was liquidated) and Seafirst (a victim of the Penn Square debacle that was merged into Bank of America). The author, though, devotes much of his text to the behind-closed-doors deliverance of Continental Illinois. Notable for his candor on the behavior of big-name players in the high-stakes game (FRB Chairman Paul Volker, former Treasury Secretary Donald Regan, et al.), Sprague offers a wealth of fascinating and accessible detail on how such crises are handled. The bottom line, in Sprague's view, is that Congress and the electorate must accept the fact that a few multinational giants will never be allowed to fail; consequently, their uninsured depositors, investors, and delinquent borrowers will get undeserved breaks. The author leaves no doubt, though, that go-go executives who pursue growth at any cost are the primary cause of banking failures. Among other remedies: stricter oversight and elimination of regulatory overlaps that lead to unproductive turf battles--or, worse, errors of omission. Sprague's appreciation looks like the standard reference for banking professionals and their government monitors. It could also prove of interest to retail and commercial clients of depository institutions who wonder why they are not realizing all of the benefits promised by financial deregulation.