OF ALL THE themes literature affords, few are so wholly demanding or so versatile in potential as the succession of generations, the means by which we become like and different from our parents, internalize and propitiate their images, and contrive to distinguish our egos from their domination. "Who is the father of any son," James Joyce asked, "that any son should love him or he any son?"

That is the stubborn question that Ward Just has set himself in this story of a midwestern newspaper family over three generations. The book is narrated in three time sequences - 1953, 1960 and 1973 - each of which captures the family at a significant point in its evolution.

Amos Rising, founder, editor and publisher of the Intelligencer , (sole newspaper in the town of Dement, near Chicago), is preparing to pass on the I to his children. In 1953, Amos - a benevolent amalgam of prospero and Boss Tweed - is 85 and worried about change. Understandably: for the I is not simply a newspaper. It is the I , the eye, the super-ego and succor of the town, and the daily embodiment of Amos' adamantine notions of American life.

Amos believes that "each man had a location. It was a specific region from which one strayed at great risk to personal equilibrium; it was neither natural nor safe to live among strangers." And if the maintenance of these values means altering or suppressing the news, ruining one politician's career or guaranteeing another's, then that is the price of stability.

As Amos anticipates his death, he must distribute control of the paper and the town among his three sons, whose characters span the range of responses to a dominant father: Mitch, the irascible, sarcastic politico who has tried too hard to be his father and become merely a parody; Tony - amiable, unambitious, withdrawn from competition - old Amos' favorite; and Charles, the youngest, the pragmatic, progressive business wizard who will become publisher. The transition is presided over by Elliot Townsend, the I 's attorney, who plays the Kent to Amos' King Lear and is the co-enforcer of his atavastic values.

Charles, however, lacking his father's reverence for continuity, envisions a new order, embodied in Bill Eurich, a land developer whose litany of Eisenhower-age prosperity finds a willing audience in the town's younger leaders: "It goes like dominoes . . . You have a shopping center. Next you throw up a housing development convenient to it. Then you sell some land for an industrial park convenient to that . Click, click, click."

By 1960, Amos is dead and Eurich's plan is becoming reality, with Charles presiding over the town's mutations. It is in this section that Just most fully elaborates the strange, Hegelian trauma by which generations divide - Amos the thesis, Charles the antithesis - neither right, but each embodying a different kind of truth.

Their resolution is made in Dana, Charles' daughter. Proscribed by custom from inheriting the paper (that had been prepared for Charles' son, but he was killed in Korea). she is educated in the East, far from Dement and the dilemma of succession. In her twenties, she has become a book editor, and combines her grandfather's stubborn idealism with an understanding of his bending of the truth in pursuit of control: "For herself, the truth was not poisonous. The truth was the truth; concealed, it was no better than a lie."

As time passes and tensions mount, Charles, too, must pass I along, and its ultimate disposition is achieved in the context of a changing America and a changing Dement - from the placid, if less prosperous, era which Amos controlled to the new urban hybrid predicted by Eurich ("The periphery . . . It's not the center anymore but the edges. That's where the opportunity is") and witnessed by Dana as she returns in 1973 after a long absence ("Ten years ago you entered the city in darkness; now it was bright as day with neon and flashing lights. . . She thought suddenly, It's a different night. Night has been changed.")

Ward Just writes extremely revealing dialogue. He has the ability, as he puts it in Nicholson at Large (1975), to build "a cosmology around the difference between a pause and a silence, effectively concealing himself in his characters, leaking information in bits and pieces, facts mixed with lies and only the context never in doubt." Ever since The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert (1973) - a collection of stories which constitute a sort of apotheosis of the public servant - he has consistently composed conversations which do exactly that.

Equally consistent is the author's preoccupation with the costly homage which the present pays to the past. In an early story, "The Brigadier General and the Columnist's Wife," Just created a war-obsessed journalist whose increasing burden of morbid memory - his terrible roster of the dead - finally breaks him. In a way, this story is emblematic of Just's later fiction, in which cahracters are invariably trapped in the past. And this theme, too, Just has never explored more richly nor pursued more variously than in A Family Trust.

But Just has always had difficultly in sustaining long narratives - the short stories still remain his most perfectly accomplished work - and he is invariably more secure in the first halves of his books. The latter part of A Family Trust introduces another father-and-son relationship, a "national security" problem (an apt parallel to Amos' news control, but intrusive nonetheless), and some excursions into Dana's lovelife which do not seem organically connected to the central story, but draw attention away from the central, and powerful, family myth.

For all that, A Family Trust is incontestably Ward Just's finest novel. And in it he has done more than to create an eloquent but circumspect lament for the passing of an age and the spirit of a region. At his best, he has found the universal imbedded in a personal history, what Joseph Campbell calls the son's ritual "crises of realization by means of which his consciousness came to be amplified and made capable of enduring the full possession of the mother-destroyer, his inevitable bride. With that he knows that he and the father are one; he is in the father's place."