Vidal writes of politics, literature, aviation and his father in these sparkling, irascible essays reprinted from The New York Review of Books, Vanity Fair, and other magazines. Here are some of the best bits: Vidal captures ""our"" Nixon in deft strokes, burnishing our image of the self-sabotaging ""Big Loser"" with the light of his insight and contributions ("". . .the fact that he went to Peking and Moscow in order to demonstrate to all the world the absolute necessity of coexistence proves that there is not only good in him but in us as well--hope too""). The rest of his political essays extend this plea for real intelligence in government by painting chillingly clear pictures of the decline of the ""American Empire"" under Reagan. Of the literary essays, ""The Golden Bowl of Henry James"" and ""Calvino's Death"" are standouts: the first for its superb understanding of a work (""He has made gods of his characters; and turns them all to gold""); the second for its brief, aching evocation of a man. At his best, Vidal shows us what is lost in American ""bookchat"" (a phrase he coined). Inevitably, he pitches acid in the faces of his critics--his screechy, tedious ""How I Do What I Do if Not Why"" (a defense of his novel Lincoln) is the least enjoyable, least illuminating essay in an otherwise excellent collection. Vintage Vidal, turning a happily biased eye on everything from a national park in the People's Republic of Mongolia to a forgotten American writer named Dawn Powell--and demonstrating once again that the author is one of our best essayists and, arguably (he wouldn't have it any other way), one of our most moral.