The ten entertaining character studies that make up Auchincloss' 41st book also offer a subtle portrait of the American century and its waning aristocracy. Once again, our finest novelist of manners tempers any nostalgic impulse with a serious moral purpose; and, at the same time, this is something of a fictional autobiography, for narrator Dan Ruggles, whose life most resembles Auchincloss', also follows the twin muses of law and letters. Ruggles' world is one of boarding schools and Manhattan brownstones, of Bar Harbor summers and deb parties at Piping Rock. And it's peopled with a number of wholly believable types: a maiden aunt, ""the best-natured creature in the world,"" whose charitableness must compensate for childlessness; a romantic uncle, a fop whose pursuit of the good life (""the great world""--in Auchincloss' terms) leads to no good deeds or ""serious thinking""--those antidotes to idle luxury; and a wealthly cousin who underwrites her eccentric husband's scholarly obsession with a minor antebellum statesman. As the world beyond Park Avenue opens to the somewhat priggish Dan, he discovers its more unsavory aspects. A witty and gregarious Yale classmate, a shameless social climber, commits suicide rather than confront his homosexuality; Dan's best friend from law school, an apparently perfect parent, must endure the shame of his son's larcenous behavior; and a partner at Dan's firm, an aging bachelor, marries a younger, less wealthy woman who's treated poorly by her husband's friends. The law figures prominently in other chapters as well. One concerns some legal documents, and how notarizing them or not in absentia indicates the character of a senior partner and his associate. In another, Auchincloss takes us back to the milieu of last year's The Golden calves; here, an egotistical museum-curator and a vain art-collector clash over terms of her bequeathal. A wonderful portrait of a Katherine Anne Porter-like writer teaches Dan much about booze and betrayal among the literati. For those unacquainted with Auchincloss' substantial oeuvre, this compendium of his themes--the play of private and public selves; intimacy among the close-lipped; the thick exteriors of the moneyed class--serves as the perfect introduction. His avid readers, on the other hand, will find him in top form.