Twenty consistently fine, persistently challenging essays in the third volume of this annual collection. Dillard (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, An American Childhood) notes in her introduction the essay's long history of experimentation and invention, from DeFoe to Swift, and seems to have selected here with an eye to political and formal daring. Genteel traditionalists with pleasant intentions--represented here by Elizabeth Hardwick and The New Yorker's E.J. Kahn, Jr. --take a back seat to alternative voices, more contemporary minds. Richard Selzer's "A Mask on the Face of Death" is chilling reportage on AIDS in Haiti: "Walls: A Journey to Auburn," by black teacher Kenneth McClane, is an unflinching meditation on the meaning of justice in America; Kimberly Wozencraft, a former undercover narcotics agent busted for drug use, makes prison life uncomfortably familiar in "Notes from the Country Club." Less confrontational but no less surprising is Susan Mitchell's essay on Provincetown--the collection's boldest and most spectacular language performance, simply gorgeous. Comedy and tragedy are duly represented by, respectively, Bernard Cooper's "Beacon's Burning Down," a Salingeresque idyll on life's eccentricities, and William Manchester's moving commemoration of the battle of Okinawa. Finally there are brisk, engaging reports on history--Mary Settle on WW II and Arthur C. Danto on Gettysburg. Balanced, inventive and often dazzling, this collection shows off American writing at its deepest and best: feeling, thinking, in love with its own possibilities.