Sterne's life ""seems to shrivel under scrutiny,"" warns Thomson of the creator of Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey -- and indeed it does in this absorbing appreciation. Sterne, Thomson believes, was consistently engaged in a ""daring and tormented inquiry into identity"" -- a comic/ despairing extension of sentience. Within that interior world of bloods and humours, feelings and thoughts (which in Sterne's words swam ""in the middle of the thin juice of a man's understanding""), the reception of sensation was a constant (and curiously modern) imperative. Still in the ""outside world,"" Sterne accomplished no relationship that was ""mature, lasting or. . . experienced mutually,"" and one has the impression that even contemporary accounts of the man offer no real substance. Thomson, convinced that traditional biography is a losing game, nimbly keeps pace with Sterne through the near-solipsistic progress of the oeuvres (including his letters) loading on biographical detail from time to time as auxiliary baggage. There was Sterne's ragtag childhood following his father's wanderings as a family black sheep and soldier of little fortune; education at Cambridge; his career as a cleric (an odd shepherd he was!); an unhappy marriage, perhaps inevitably as true communication was absent; and the feverish travels. Sterne, when fame arrived, fairly flew to London as his own frenetically unfocused PR man, but he was not really amusing, and his stock as a novelty soon dropped. The remainder of his life was a series of travels back and forth from England to the Continent and sometimes beyond -- as if motion itself could soothe and perhaps outrun his advancing illness and even death. Even if Sterne, Thomson insists, traveled ""not to see the wonders of the world. . . but to brush against a lady's arm."" The author catches the sensibility-""brinksmanship"" and the craft of Sterne's synaptic style. The portraits by Reynolds and Kolleken, included here, complement Thomson's contention that Sterne's ""sly and amiable"" visage hid an immensely complex individual, and further, that ""Significance was an aura he could bestow at a glance."" A rich companion to the Wilbur Cross biography (reissued in 1967) and those others underway signaling what well may be a Sterne revival.