From the decline-and-fall-of-practically-everything (The Crack in the Picture Window, The Insolent Chariots, The Sheepskin Psychosis) to final disintegration, the ""materialistic millenium,"" or, to pull in the title, the first days of the American empire may be analogous to the last days of the Roman. Citing himself as representative of the generation and social class ""that momentarily occupies the seat of American power,"" Keats reconstitutes the salient experiences of family, school, army, post war scramble and parenthood that have made the affluent forty-five-year-old popular fiction's favorite lost soul. Even the details are familiar: sadism in military school; disillusion with his parents' pretensions and prejudices; with the Young Communist League as ""a kind of fraternity for the estranged""; cop-out from college; flight on the freights. Maybe because ""time is the greatest gift the Army gives the soldier,"" the reflections on World War II are the most consequential: two minutes of action in four years' service--""a reason why my American generation is so generally bellicose is that so few of us got anywhere near the war we waged; ""a Croesus in other countries--""Americans (obviously) lived better than other people... (and it was) no more than our duty to help them become more and more like ourselves."" Twenty years and half a book later, after the housing development doldrums, the McCarthy madness, and the gilded playpen--all the familiar anathemas--he still believes this; the book ends with a bow to the eternal verities and two cheers for Vietnam. Only Keats' contemporaries are likely to read this--for them, as for him, it may be a catharsis.