Fifteen easy pieces: agreeable reflections on random topics (mostly literary, pop-cultural, and personal) in a minor key. Epstein, who edits the American Scholar and teaches English at Northwestern, often sounds like a hip professor--which he is--imitating S. J. Perelman. His comic vein isn't nearly so rich, his foolishness not so inspired, but he sometimes achieves a nice balance of urbanity, casual erudition, and relaxed reminiscence. Like Perelman, Epstein likes to flip in mid-sentence from high-brow to low-brow and back. Discussing his fetish for pens, Epstein writes: ""I am looking for a perfect pen, a Bucephalus, a Joe DiMaggio, a Sarah Vaughan of a pen."" In an essay on faces, he notes that he has been described as resembling Sal Mineo, Russ Tamblyn, Walter Kaufmann, Lee Harvey Oswald, ""and a now-deceased Yorkshire terrier named Max."" Epstein toys with the idea of making himself into an active persona--a faintly absurdist Everyman, as when he relates his newly acquired skills as a juggler, adding ""I am, therefore, ready for small family parties, but only useful, I fear, to end especially dull ones""--but he remains the classical essayist, speaking his mind rather than baring his soul. The autobiographical moments he does present, like the fraternity reunion in ""The Crime of a Happy Childhood,"" are hearty, healthy--and flat. Epstein is best as an urbane raconteur, full of homey stories and deft allusions. In his finest essay, ""You Take Manhattan,"" he assembles a rich collage of features of New York life (its ""permanent transience,"" its ""polyglottony,"" its edgy chauvinism) and shrewdly concludes that writers are always mourning for the city's good old days because Manhattan is really a metaphor for their youth. Not a brilliant observer, Epstein makes up for it with knowledgeability, as in a witty name-dropping exercise called ""Onomastics, You and Me Is Quits."" A series of unpretentious and often pleasant divertissements.