A deep moonlit night in the prairie town of Galilee, Neb., 1909, and 50-year-old Abraham Gottenberg is scrambling up from the depot, taking a shortcut for the first time in his adult life, running toward his home. He's ridden straight through from Worcester, Mass., where Sigmund Freud has just given five lectures at Clark University. Bursting into the sleeping house, he shakes his two sons awake and harries them out into the family buggy. He drives the groggy young men to where a bend in the Black River curves around an abandoned farm. "I'm going to buy it and start a clinic there for the treatment of mental disorders," he tells his sons, "I want you to help me."

So begins David Black's engrossing novel "Minds." As the opening scene suggests, it is a family saga. But despite the presence of the founding patriarch, his sons, the bold declaration of purpose, and other such familiar accessories, this book is no ordinary representative of that durable genre. It's not very long, first of all, and it is not about plantation life or a banking dynasty or a fashion empire; it's about a midwestern psychiatric clinic, the people who built it, and the people who need it.

Abraham Gottenberg first arrives in Galilee in 1884. He has left New York City to set up shop as a general practitioner--the only sort of doctor any town smaller than Cincinnati could then support--in the promising country west of the Mississippi. He knows he's pretty good, but he "often feared, when his patients recovered, that he'd flimflammed them into getting better." He suspects his prescriptions are secondary to his ability to ease suffering by listening and caring. He calls this his "minister's knack," and he doesn't like it.

Galilee, Neb., does, though, and he prospers and becomes known as the Talking Doctor--"paradoxically, since he listened more than he talked." As he listens, he becomes convinced everyone is odd: this man trims the tobacco around the bowl of his pipe with a straight razor, that woman can't sleep at night because of "the sound of the house settling." The tics and small eccentricities he notices in his patients and their families first amuse him, then horrify him. "Abraham realized that he, too, was odd: he'd become obsessed with oddness." He begins to fill ledgers with his observation of these peculiarities; somehow, he feels, the aggregate will be able to teach him "why people do what they do." In time his wife tells him he's changed: he doesn't laugh anymore.

By now he's getting journals from Europe filled with the writings of other people who don't find oddness funny; and by the time he goes east to hear Freud, he's as well equipped as anyone in America to found his clinic.

It galls Abraham that Jacob, his first son, prefers fairy tales to the skewed wonders of the real world. Abraham tells him of "the Vampire of Dedham, a telegraph operator who was found drinking dog's blood," only to have Jacob prefer the Arthurian legends. He can't see that Jacob--like Jung--responded "not to the fantasy in the stories, but to the reality that flashed through them."

Jacob's younger brother, Hermann, on the other hand, has no use whatever for fairy tales. Jacob grows up to be interested only in ideas, Hermann only in facts.

Jacob's youth is filled with the magical: he survives an eerie nocturnal balloon ascension that probably would have killed him and an antic ride on a powerhouse engine's whirling flywheel that surely would have. Hermann--save for a savage interlude in the prize ring--is steadily cautious: "He filled his mind as though he were packing a trunk, making sure every corner was used, no space wasted." "Minds" tells a great many stories during its short course, but the major one is the struggle between the two brothers. They fight each other for 70 years--for their father's approval, for the love of their first cousin Miriam (herself a dedicated "alienist"), and finally for control of the clinic.

The clinic has turned out to be worth fighting for. As early as 1915 it was a going concern, with an elaborate yellow Queen Anne director's house and a thoroughly professional staff of doctors, "satraps of the provinces of Electrotherapy, Hypnotism, Nutrition, Massage, Zinc Phosphate, Oxide of Iron, Belladonna, Cold Baths, Sleep, Sexual Abstinence." By 1947 it has become prominent enough for Founders Day--the sort of solemn memorial that Hermann finds particularly satisfying--to draw a congratulatory telegram from President Truman. With the dedication of each new marble building, with the completion of every new wing and dormitory, Hermann struggles to get another past the board of trustees.

And Jacob, worried that human values may be lost along with human scale, steadily resists.

David Black tells his story in bright, barbed incidents, shot through with perfectly observed peripheral detail. We see a train running under a cloud, and as "the engine entered the shadow, the white plume from its funnel turned yellow and seemed to solidify"; Miriam riding her bicycle through a morning whose "air smelled as fresh as the inside of a cucumber"; Abraham's mortar and pestle "made of stone the color of cheese."

The steady poetic accuracy of Black's observation gives his narrative a coherence it might otherwise lack. And, indeed, as the Gottenbergs' long battle draws closer to the present day, the story occasionally seems a bit hasty and diffuse. But perhaps this is evident only because the opening chapters of the book are so very good. They illuminate, with economy and grace, a particular sort of American genius. It is truly stirring to watch Abraham bringing to his inchoate project just the sort of intuitive brilliance the Wright brothers were then bringing to theirs, developing a tremendous new science with the same lack of equipment, the same steady seriousness of purpose.