A portfolio of neat, guarded and essentially disabusing sketches of private and public defeat in a world we know only too well -- temporizing in one way or another. The tone is established in the title story when a so-called Southern Liberal, making the most of an elementary school bill, is asked to intervene at a higher (stop imperialism and the bomb) level. But then he had done his Ph.D. on Flaubert and had learned that everything ""is meant to end in irony and contradiction."" Minor figures -- state department personnel, a columnist who declined as he submerged himself in a commemorative celebration of war, a Capitol Hill wife who ""saved secrets like other women saved string"" including her own, a Medal of Honor war hero asked to appear on ""Prime Evening Time"" to offset the war casualties -- they're all unremarkable for the most part, transients, casualties. The air is thick with disaffection but Just can also be entertaining about it: ""Think of yourself as Charles Dickens,"" a bureau chief tells one of his men, ""writing a novel, a new installment every month. Except that this novel goes on forever and forever, of course."" ""A sort of Pickwick Papers in triplicate.