To humorist Baldwin, the only thing more laughable than an eccentric old southern family--the subject of his first novel, The Hard to Catch Mercy (1993)--is the type of egghead academic who hopes to exploit such a family for career purposes. And, here, Baldwin heaps on the scorn thickly, burying his simple historical tale in satire and fable. With the broadest of comic strokes, Baldwin introduces his extremely wimpy historian, Paul Danvers, a junior professor at a podunk state college in South Carolina. With pipe, moustache, and patched elbows, Paul discovers that one of his students is a descendant of the famed Fennel family, a coastal clan whose ancestors maintained an important lighthouse for two centuries. Striking up a listless affair with the diffident coed, Danvers is invited to the family manse, a building as odd as its inhabitants. Presiding over the family archives is Camilla Fennel, a haughty dowager insanely protective of the Fennel legacy. Previous historians have intimated scandalous behavior: from abetting Spanish settlers from Florida to aiding pirates who prowled the coast. With tenure on his mind, Danvers weasels his way into the family papers, hoping to uncover even darker secrets: treason, miscegenation, incest. But his manic research in the ever-mounting stacks of ephemera reveals little of real value. Instead, Paul comes further under the strange spell of Bena, the old black Gullah woman whose voodoo seems to control everything that happens in the family. While his girlfriend, Ginny Fennel, tends to her crippled father, Paul is left alone with Ginny's insanely violent uncle Leroy, a Viet vet with lustful eyes on his niece. Eventually Paul, an otherwise paranoid loser, conquers his personal demons when he slips into a dangerous fever (""the Fennel thing"") and realizes his personal happiness is far more important than this crazy family's sordid story. Baldwin's strange yarn spins out of control and sense. His lazy comic style seems more suited to a TV sitcom than ""magic realism,"" which is what it pretends to be.