This roomy, conventional, and comfortable saga follows Thomas Chance, who's born a Baltimore bastard, works from age 13, and finally, in the Civil Wax, gets his chance to begin doing what he knew he was destined for: raking it in. As a wartime ""suttler""--someone who sells one side's abandoned arms to the other--he amasses a pile, which, after the war, he builds even higher in a few stylish swindles involving a Tiffany-like jewelry firm and a priceless pearl. Soon enough he's into shipping, and from there it's onward to a broadly-based trust that's linked to the likes of Boss Tweed, Jay Gould, and even the not-quite-up-and-up occupant of the White House, Ulysses S. Grant. With Teddy Roosevelt's trust-busting, the Chance empire begins to totter. But Chance is a man who always lands on his feet, and he uses his con-man past to extricate himself from even this closest of squeezes. You can easily imagine this as a solid TV mini-series (""It's the age of iron. And steel. Most of all, railroads. There's country opening up. . . . And there are kings' fortunes to be made"")--it's well-researched and kept briskly on the move. Caplan's prose is strictly stock, with Chance often a forced, gee-whiz sort of climber; but the feel for authentic Americana is good, and the pacing alone is enough to keep you in line.