An excruciating debut novel that portrays—in terms taken directly from Cicero’s rules of rhetoric—a dysfunctional American family haunted by the Vietnam War. Jarlath Lanham is one of those old-family boys always eager to tell you, in the most conceited manner possible, just how impressively dreadful his family is. Usually such characters go on and on about incest, child abuse, or other sexual deviancies. For Jarlath, however, politics is the name of the game. His father, you see, was a “Special Assistant” to the White House during the 1960s, responsible for plotting and guiding the course of the war in Southeast Asia, and his brother A.G. was an Army officer whose unit was accused of war crimes in Vietnam. Jarlath possesses photographic evidence of A.G.’s guilt, and his refusal to surrender it to his father has made him a family pariah: they charged him with endangering the welfare of his young nephews and committed him to a mental institution, but now (some 15 years later) he’s writing a letter to his nephews explaining his actions and exposing the corruption of the Lanhams. The problem? He’s as intent on ingraining the classical order of rhetoric on his nephews— minds as he is on exposing the truth about his father and brother, and his letter quickly degenerates into rant (—If you want to hold in memory a large number of things and make them available for speech [and I—m assuming you do], it is important to equip yourself with a large number of backgrounds, so that in them you can set a large number of images—). Perhaps rhetoric is meant as a guiding metaphor, but it soon swallows the story whole in its own rhetoric, which is far less measured than Cicero’s. For a taste of the bizarre, this isn’t a bad start, but the weirdness fits poorly with the soap-opera plot and deadly earnest tone.