Johnston (Winter Rain, 1993, etc.) returns to Titus Bass--the mountain man protagonist of the trilogy Carry the Wind, Borderlords, and One-Eyed Dream--in this prequel about Bass's coming of age in frontier America. The story opens in Boone County, Kentucky, with a restless adolescent Titus discovering the pleasures of sex and the pain of life's decisions. Enamored of neighbor girl Amy, Titus is torn between the prospect of domestic happiness and the tales of adventure he hears from westbound ramblers. There is never a doubt which life will finally be victorious over the young, self-taught hunter, but almost a fifth of the novel passes before Titus decides to abandon hearth and home--and Amy--for the wiles of the lower Mississippi River valley, ultimately visiting St. Louis and the virgin wilderness beyond. Along the way, he encounters river bandits, slave catchers, Indians, and every manner of nefarious villain. He also hones his lovemaking skills under the tutelage of a number of beautiful and pliable rustic sirens. At the close, a mature, manly Titus, still seeking an edenic land free from civilized corruptions, is ready at last to enter the world of Johnston's trilogy. The story, however--while sound, meticulously researched, historically accurate--has been almost as impenetrable as Titus's wilderness. It wants an editor. Redundancies and digressions--pages of detail on everything from husbandry to woodcraft to how to hold a gun--account for nearly a third of the length. Meanwhile, the narrative voice shifts unaccountably from formal prose to hokey frontier dialect; the point of view is inconsistent; and minor characters are marked by a stultifying sameness. Bursts of brilliant realism occasionally enliven the prose, but, overall, Johnston's latest sags under its own weight--and never matches the quality of the trilogy it precedes.