With a gift for gallows humor and an imagination that brims over with marvels but has occasional longueurs, Epstein once more tackles an epic subject. In The King of the Jews (1978), it was the Holocaust; here, it is mid-19th-century America and what went wrong with the enlightened thinking, the scientific and technological advances that promised to bring ""life without pain."" The lengthy tale is narrated by one Adolph Pinto, a Jewish immigrant from Hungary who at first seems too stilted a character to get under the reader's skin. His language still betrays his Central European origins, and he is further distanced by his attempts to view everything rationally, scientifically. But his heroic struggle to maintain his beliefs, however wrongheaded, and his decency in a violent and erratic world soon make him companionable. The book rises to a level of enchantment when, during the California gold rush, Pinto becomes a teacher of a bunch of Indian boys, with only Robert Bums's poetry to serve as a textbook. Soon the lads are all speaking like wee Scots, which they continue to do through the bitter conflicts that follow as the Indians and their white exploiters war. It is during this strife that longueurs may set in for some while Epstein piles on atrocity after atrocity, his inventiveness appalling. The narrator spouts many natural laws; his creator may have forgotten one: the law of diminishing returns. Still, Epstein's loving attention to detail is part of his artistry, and the excess of atrocities--inadvertently funny in their hopelessness--may be the very story he has to tell.