Not a few readers wade through The New Criterion just to get their monthly fix of Bawer, whose always elegant, pleasantly combative essays continue to grace those otherwise dyspeptic pages. As this splendid collection of Bawer's writings on modern American fiction demonstrates, he's not only a sane critical voice in these parlous times, but a literary essayist for the ages. This ample volume, which also draws from Bawer's work for The Wall Street Journal, The Nation, The London Review of Books, and The Washington Times, coheres as a sustained diagnosis of what's wrong with so much contemporary fiction--its casual nihilism, its vulgar politics, its metafictional madness. But this is no jeremiad, and Bawer no scold. He demands nothing more of our best and most-celebrated writers than an honest representation of ""the depth and variety of human life."" And he finds it in some unlikely places--the neglected work of Glenway Wescott, and the demanding fictions of Guy Davenport--both authors the subjects of particularly strong essays here. Bawer also takes on the biggies (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Wolfe), especially as they've been refashioned by their critics and biographers. Among the next generation, however, Bawer finds the most bloated reputations; careers he expertly deflates in devastating analyses include those of John Hawkes and E.L. Doctorow. And often writers of that same generation are their own worst enemies, as Bawer argues in carefully measured accounts of Salinger, Capote, Mailer, and Updike. Inevitably, a critic as lively and daring as Bawer will provoke disagreement--as one might quarrel with his attack on Don DeLillo--but Bawer's objections always deserve answering. Other slight and more fugitive pieces collected here--a review of Tom Wolfe's Bonfire, an account of MLA follies--gain through the context of their company. Dulled by Derrida and what passes for criticism in the academy? Then delight to this young critic who, among other achievements, must be credited with giving us the term ""Literary Brat Pack"" for those overhyped kids cluttering the bookshelves.