An earnest junket into the art and life of Leon Golub as a painter ""sensitizing us to political cruelty,"" by a Harper's editor who once had the Soho beat. On a portentously ""cold and fading afternoon in January 1982,"" Marzorati first saw Golub's ""expressionist-realist"" paintings of ""mercenaries, torturers and their victims"" in a Manhattan gallery. Drawn to the pictures as ""trafficking in the grittier truths,"" the author wanted to know why in this era of photographs and TV a man who hadn't had a New York show in 25 years stuck to the ""elegiac"" pursuit of painting. It led Marzorati to ask, ""why paint?"" Unfortunately, this meandering discourse summons up little in the way of an answer to this ""big, crucial question."" Tediously, Marzorati takes us through every step of his developing fascination with Golub, who suddenly became a hot property. In the course of following their extended conversation (often over wine at Greenwich Village bistro), we learn plenty about the artist's technique, his antiwar activities, his visit (with the author) to an Oliver North hearing, his long-term interest ""in painting that did more than deal with itself."" Knocking both formalist and poststructuralist criticism, Marzorati labels Golub a ""liberal"" painter, who ""puts cruelty first."" But this high-minded label, like invocations of Goya (another ""liberal"") and Manet, do little to convince us of the importance of Golub's paintings. And what of the money-driven art scene of the 80's? Surprisingly, the author seems to approve. The money, he thinks, ""assured painters, the good ones."" A solipsistic meditation on contemporary art, thwarting both experts and lay persons.