THE DISTANCERS. By Lee Sandlin. Vintage Books. 153 pages. $15.95.

The chronicle of a few generations of a family that lived in a clapboard house alongside the railroad tracks in downstate Illinois, written by a descendent researching family history: Sound like a snooze?

Well, the characters are indelible, the tale poignantly revealing as to what it means to be American, and the ending as powerful as it is displacing.

That should give you an idea of just how good Lee Sandlin is. He might just be the best author you’ve never read, if you haven’t.

“The Distancers” is Sandlin’s portrait of seven generations of his family, etched around the centerpiece of the ancient country house where he spent summers as a child.

You meet relatives like Uncle Eugene, tormented by his World War II service, who barely spoke a word and disappeared for days, weeks or months at a time to ride the rails and live in hobo jungles without telling anyone in the family where he was headed or where he had been:

“Then the sound of an approaching train would come rumbling through the frosty air. There’d be that familiar flurry in the jungle: everyone staked a place along the tracks to make their jump. Eugene always made as if to join them – but he’d hang back unobtrusively until the caboose sailed past. Then he was alone. He sauntered down the spur line that led out of the forest. Past the trees was a tangle of low shabby roofs and chicken coops and outhouses and tumbled wire fences. People wouldn’t look twice at a hobo walking along the tracks there; nobody noticed when he turned aside and vanished through the back gate of his home.”

The best thing to tell you about this book is, don’t peek. The times gather momentum as they go. The finale is an emotional pit you drop smack into.

Reviewer Bo Petersen is a reporter at The Post and Courier.