It's the hero's wiles, not his conventional musings or the stolid love of wife and son, that make this novel of recent American history sporadically engrossing. Carroll (Firebird, 1988, etc.) opens his novel in the Chicago stockyards in 1939 and focuses on Sean Dillon, an Irish Catholic going to law-school at night and determined to rise out of working-class drudgery. In his most powerful writing, Carroll paints as ugly a picture of the stockyards as Upton Sinclair's in the muckraking era. Sean falls in love with Cass, the woman who becomes his wife, when he helps her investigate her uncle's murder, and he proves he can think on his feet by tricking the gangland perpetrator into a lifetime prison sentence. He again displays his ingenuity by planting misinformation on the intended site of the European invasion when he works for the FBI in WW II Washington. Made head of Air Force counterintelligence, and despised by the brass as an outsider, Sean employs his cunning to save a general framed for bribery. At the climax, during the Vietnam War, he is a four-star general, head of all military intelligence. The 483-page story reaches its moral crux when once again he uses his wits, this time to defend his only son, Richard, a war resister, against a draft-dodging charge. But the soul-searching by father and son in their conflict over the war would be more compelling if the son were less a stick figure. Sean's wife-loving, patient, and very Catholic-also seems contrived. Three decades of America life in the mid-20th century well dramatized when the hero is in action at centers of power, but insufficiently probing when he pauses to think or feel.