An ""interpretive, biographical essay"" that scorns the old cliches about the Vicious Circle (greatest-wittery-since-Mermaid-Tavern) and embraces the slightly less old clichÃ‰s: fiddling while talent burns, tears behind the hijinks, a ""Bronx Zoo of contemporary neurotics. . . laughing all the way."" So, instead of laughter, we're given a name-crammed, chronological account (1919-1934) that jumps from one leading light to another, vainly trying--in about 150 pages of text--to make a socio-psychological mosaic out of Parker's alcoholism and suicide tries, Benchley's writer's-block and movie sell-out, Woollcott's biased reviews and bloated persona, Kaufman's commercialism, Heyward Broun's diet, Robert Sherwood's marriage, Sacco-Vanzetti, Harold Ross, Harpo Marx, Ring Lardner, Marc Connelly, Donald Ogden Stewart, and FPA. Gaines occasionally introduces flickers of unifying motifs--sexual Victorianism, escapist gamesplaying--but, with a dozen busy, miserable lives to keep tabs on, there's not much time for that; so the generalizing most often takes the form of grossly oversimplified hook-ups that insist on projecting each poor soul's problems onto everybody else: ""Dorothy Parker with her [aprÃ‰s waist-slashing] ribbon bracelets: there could have been no more eloquent symbol of the unhappy pass at which the Algonquin wits now found themselves."" This sort of slight-of-hand might sneak by if Gaines brought a distinctive tone to bear. He does not. Leaning heavily on memoirs and such less-than-reliable biographies as Keats' You Might As Well Live, he quotes with emphasis (sometimes the same quote twice), repeats a few famous anecdotes with laugh-killing leadenness, and, on his own, produces ungainly locutions: ""So completely idiosyncratic and inside was the strain of humor they were working that. . ."" Algonquinistes, who have been inundated with debunking bios of late, will hardly be surprised to hear that the Round Table was ""more a creature than a creator of the times"" or that ""the end of wit was a sounding silence,"" And less knowing readers will be thoroughly perplexed. With 150 illustrations and a deco-rative presentation, however, this unsatisfying text may be craftily parlayed into an unavoidable gift book.