Group biography is a tricky genre to pull off, as Carpenter's last entry in the form (Geniuses Together, a falling-off from his magisterial studies of J.R.R. Tolkien, W.H. Auden, and Ezra Pound) attests; and this latest volume is most successful when it concentrates on its leading figure. Fortunately, Waugh takes over Carpenter's story from the moment he bursts onto the scene, sidelining his ""friends"" (not always the most precise word) from Oxford--Harold Acton, Brian Howard, Cyril Connolly, John Betjeman, Graham Greene, Nancy Mitford, Anthony Powell, Henry Yorke (Henry Green) et al.--not because they're less interesting or distinguished, but because ""be displayed the characteristics and conflicts of the group more intensely and dramatically, and more entertainingly, than any other member."" More entertainingly, certainly: the irrepressible adolescent cutup who bought a stuffed dog for a tutor he was convinced harbored bestial desires and who sent up a generation of Bright Young Things in Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies is wickedly amusing--even as the prematurely aged Catholic convert who humiliates the TV interviewers sent out to score easy points off Colonel Blimp. But since Carpenter offers a largely psychological rationale for Waugh's behavior and authorial stance--he persuasively ascribes Waugh's combativeness to his lifelong rivalry with his father and older brother Alec and makes much of Waugh's disillusionment when his bride of one year ran off with another man--he's not always convincing in presenting Waugh as historically typical of an Oxonian counterpart--fiercely Tory, largely satirical, awkwardly religious--to the Cambridge Bloomsbury group. Instead, the subsidiary figures here flit teasingly in and out of Waugh's life (Powell virtually disappears for 12 years between novels) without consistently illuminating it or justifying Carpenter's stated emphasis on ""the transition from industrialism to democracy"" as ""a theme that would come to obsess them all."" Not a great biography, but a great read--Carpenter can't write a dull paragraph--about a writer as scintillating as any of his fiction.