Once again, Bawer (Diminishing Fictions, 1988; The Middle Generation, 1986) proves to be a literary essayist of the highest order: an engaged and stylish critic who addresses common readers with intelligence and wit. Boldly evaluative and truly humane, Bawer's 15 essays here (all collected from The New Criterion) tease out the religious, mystical, and visionary concerns in a seemingly disparate group of 20th-century writers. The highest accolades go to such novelists as William Maxwell, who, with ``conspicuous humility,'' draws us to everyday wonders. Similarly, Penelope Fitzgerald, with her ``sublime sense of the transcendent,'' portrays characters with ``quiet fortitude'' and ``a sense of duty.'' Bawer also reminds us that Flannery O'Connor's masterly stories were grounded in her traditional faith. Always measuring fiction against a sense of reality, Bawer finds many of our most celebrated writers coming up short: For all his mesmerizing brilliance, John Fowles's ``philosophical promiscuity'' leads to much mystical inanity; a clever naturalist and storyteller, Peter Matthiessen indulges in much bad faith, and considers all primitive cultures closer to God. Bawer smartly ignores the accepted wisdom about Graham Greene, and reveals the psychopathological dimension to Greene's peculiar theology. Despite their relative achievements, Baldwin, Lessing, and Updike (in the later Rabbit novels) sacrifice their narrative strengths for fashionable politics and sociology. In her best work, Jean Stafford turns her tragic childhood into objective art; Harold Brodkey, on the other hand, remains mired in his own mythology, mistaking ``lexical flatulence for divine afflatus.'' It's a sad comment on the state of literary criticism that a self-described ``old-fashioned liberal humanist'' like Bawer--the finest writer to emerge from The New Criterion--is considered a reactionary by the hacks of academe. Like the Partisan Review critics he emulates, Bawer understands that ideas have consequences--and that the best art aspires to something greater than ideological play.