This comprehensive selection of Auchincloss's short fiction couldn't be better timed. With critical taste leaning away from slick minimalism and neo-proletarian fiction, perhaps there's finally room for a true expansionist among the canonized story writers. Spanning more than 40 years, this collection attests to Auchincloss's durable talents: flawless prose, keen social observation, and a refined moral sensibility. The compromises between society and the individual, art and commerce, ego and restraint all figure into his finest fictions. Arranged chronologically, the 19 selections together suggest the author's profound sense of American history, with all of its political and social eruptions. He seems to have emerged as a writer fully formed, since the earliest pieces here (``Maud'' and ``Greg's Peg'') prove as supple and graceful as his most recent, which include choice work from Three Lives (1993) and Tales of Yesteryear (1994). No longer lost among the bulk of his out-of-print books are some of his very best stories, among them three linked tales about a major Manhattan law firm (``The Colonel's Foundation,'' ``The Mavericks,'' and ``The Single Reader'') that chronicle vanity and ambition at the profession's highest levels. Auchincloss's ambivalence about the ``Great World'' (as he calls it) of Wall Street and New York society comes through vividly in two mid-career stories: ``Billy and the Gargoyles'' highlights the attractions and repulsions of conformist behavior at a New England boys' school; ``The Gemlike Flame,'' perhaps his masterpiece, is a hypnotic, strangely oedipal tale of romantic egoists in Venice. Auchincloss schools us in all the social differences we're taught don't exist. At the same time, his work reflects our collective loss of soul and the corrupting power of political and social resentment. Time and again, he implicates his narrators in the fate of his protagonists- -one of many sure signs that we're in the presence of a subtle master. Further proof, if any is needed, that Auchincloss ranks among the best in American literature.