Sheed takes pains, in his introduction, to dilute assumptions of high seriousness and to break apart the wails of any pigeonholes a reader might think of constructing from these ever-elegantly prosed pieces. What's here are columns, overviews on the Mafia and the Catholic Church (one of the book's most impressively cogent pieces), vagrant paeans (to Frank Sinatra, to Jack Nicklaus, to Harold Arlen and the classic songwriters), even a so-so but genial piece of travelogue about Australia. With his rich aphoristic style and seemingly perfect balance, Sheed has always been our best literary critic when he wants to be. Which is rarely. Here, he is spectacular (but again consciously diffuse) on Hemingway, Updike, Thurber, Perelman, and Salinger--but with the air of a man opening a closed trunk for just a short moment: picking up some of the contents within and then laying them back again essentially undisturbed. Still, with Sheed you always have the sense that the writer is now yours whole, that the essence has been released. Nowhere in this collection is this talent better exercised than in a radically ambivalent and yet classically relaxed portrait of the sad life of Jean Stafford, a fine writer whom Sheed was friends with and who for him seemed the very embodiment of the murderous isolation that every writer knows as his or her greatest enemy. It's as fine and intricate an obituary es. say as there is to be written. Maybe not as consistently good as Sheed's The Good Word--and much more unnecessarily cagey--but filled with pleasure and brilliance all the same.