Taylor (The Oracle at Stoneleigh Court, 1993, etc.) has written a novel that reads like a stream-of-conscious autobiography, sprinkled with wonderful moments but without the sustaining power fiction requires to propel it. ``In the Tennessee country of my forebears it was not uncommon for a man of good character suddenly to disappear,'' begins Nat Longfort, the elderly narrator. An art critic and historian, Nat is obsessed with the fate of affluent Tennesseeans who set off on paths differing from those of their old families. Specifically, the memory of his mother's ``disappeared'' illegitimate cousin, Aubrey Tucker Bradshaw, haunts Nat, as do the ghosts of the genteel Confederate-era South. Throughout his life, Nat sees the mysterious Aubrey at family funerals and can only guess at what his cousin's life has become outside of the tight, although widespread, Taylor clan. Aubrey and Nat's mother nearly eloped when very young, and after their break, his mother suppressed all of her artistic inclinations, passing on her desires to her son. Nat himself had to make the difficult decision of whether to become a painter or an art critic. Meanwhile Nat's own son also is faced with the difficulty of making his way as an artist. There are many sly, humorous set pieces involving old Southern families and the academic life, and there are some wise and beautifully written epiphanies on the nature of art and love, yet the book is for the most part a rambling, repetitive hodgepodge of stories and themes that never quite coheres into a whole, despite the tidy and well- wrought ending. At times vintage Taylor--warm, evocative, and darkly humorous- -but it doesn't really hold up as a novel.