In a way, it is a romance of American capitalism, but as through written by Kurt Vonnegut and directed by John Ford. Theodore Dreiser would have loved it. In October 1930, a pair of plausible con men named Doc Lloyd and Dad Joiner drilled a hole in the earth of an East Texas field belonging to a widow named Dasiy Bradford. Against staggering odds, they struck oil. Not only did they strike oil but they accidentally hit the largest pool of the stuff ever found in the lower 48 states.

They weren't trying to do that, and they were in a pickle. With a bonanza on their hands, their scam -- buying oil leases and selling them as though they were wallpaper -- was about to blow up in their faces. But they were shortly visited by a friendly card shark named Haroldson Lafayette Hunt Jr., who proposed a happy solution. With $30,000 of his haberdasher's money and a series of notes that -- if the field proved to be another fata morgana --wouldn't be worth the water they were written on, he proposed to relieve them of their burden, and that is exactly what he did. At the time, he had exactly $109 to his name.

He ended life as one of the wealthiest individuals on the surface of the planet, the Scrooge McDuck of the American Right. One of his sons bought the Kansas City Chiefs and founded World Championship tennis. Others of his sons attempted to take control of the world's silver. These were the most visible members of what become known as Hunt's first family. He had at least two more, and he was married to two of the mothers simultaneously, a circumstance that inspired him to try to convert one of them to Mormonism. He named as many of his children as he could, both male and female, after himself, and he was very fond of founding companies with six-letter names beginning with "P." He lived in a replica of Mount Vernon.

He owned his strange politics, in part, to his conviction that Gen. MacArthur was sound on the subject of offshore oil leases, and he broadcast his politics over more than 300 radio stations in partnership with the Internal Revenue Service. His favorite exercise consisted of crawling around on the floor on all fours. At the end of his life, he become obsessed with the marketing of a digestive tablet named Gastro Majic. If someone had made him up, that per son's novel would have been rejected by every publisher in the land.

During his lifetime, much was written about him, of course, and his sons have come in for more than their share of publicity since they rocked the world's financial system in March of last year. Much of the material is either incomplete or dead wrong, but there is a reason. It is possible to do many complicated things with money, and a very rich man will seek to make his affairs as tangled as possible in the interest of escaping detection. He will also keep them as private as possible, and independent oil production is a very private, very complicated business. Unlike other great families, the Hunts have never felt a need to control a bank, and the reason is interesting. A bank's trust department enables your normal rich man to mingle his money with the money of lesser mortals and thus conceal it while still controlling it, but the Hunts have appointed themselves each other's trustees and tend to move their money in a block by means of a cabinet system dominated by H. L.'s sons, Bunker and Herbert. A trust department also gives your normal rich man his own industrial espionage system, but with the Hunts this purpose is answered by their total control of the Penrod Drilling Co., which informs them where the competition is finding oil. And because they don't own a bank, they are free of a great deal of scrutiny that might reveal what they're up to when what they're up to goes wrong.

Given these handicaps -- and greatly aided by a recent tangle of lawsuits -- Harry Hurt III has done a commendable job of sorting out the family's affairs, getting a grip on the members' personal histories and walking them through the days of their lives. Books about the Hunts are sparse, and this is by far the best of the lot. If it sheds only the van light of a gibbous moon over the actual money itself, the operation of the trusts and the complexities of the silver play, this only to be expected: Americans, as a rule, are more interested in what money does then in how it is made and preserved, and Hurt would have needed at least another volume to cover the subject, by which time he would have been an old man.