In this first-rate but overly long biography, Brightman (Larry Rivers: Drawings and Digression--not reviewed) has whole plates of intellectual history to offer, upon which Mary McCarthy sits never quite centrally enough. If there is a gift for malice--malice elevated to social distinction-making of the most valuable sort (as in some of Proust's characters)--McCarthy certainly had that. Plus a poised self-regard for her mind and body that would net her any number of lovers and friends over the years, a supporting cast of characters who bravely waited for the day when McCarthy--as was sure to happen--would discard them. An outcast as a child--the Mccarthy children were furloughed off to live with an inhospitable uncle in Minneapolis before being rescued by Seattle grandparents--Mccarthy seemed to promise herself never to be tangential again. Into the swim she ever thereafter was--at Vassar; among the anti-Stalinist Partisan Review crowd of the New York Thirties; married to Edmund Wilson; making a close alliance with Hannah Arendt; later, touting Ho Chi Minh and taunting Lillian Hellman. She become the embodiment of a nasty grande-dame type. Brightman is a fair- and jaundiced-enough biographer to recognize that McCarthy's reckless malice was often fueled by the essential disappointment of her life as a writer. McCarthy could not get beyond her own personality; her memoirs are her best work, but the essays and the fiction are either too shrill or too lightweight (recalling Gertrude Stein's ""Remarks are not literature""). But the patience of her last two husbands, and of Hannah Arendt, testify to the sheer attractiveness and lack of fear in McCarthy as she cut a substantial (if never quite broad-enough) swath through her times.