Four literary mercenaries drink through a cold, mid-March afternoon and provide a respectable, wry, doggedly honest genre piece. The slow, close-up exposure of the unsatisfactory lives and lively fantasies of the eponymous quartet is pleasantly reminiscent of a kind of French dinner-table novel, where the ensemble is the leading character and human foible the theme. Present at this bimonthly klatsch are nasty, disappointed Douglas, who dreams of rave reviews for his pseudonymous formula fiction; kindhearted Clare, whose actual lovers never reach the heights of her historical-romance heroes; wimpy Joseph in beard and cowboy boots, who envies the mastery of his invented desert fighter, Hawk Matthews; and prim, calculating Sigrid, whose warmest emotions are reserved for such ""bodice-ripper"" novels as Fiona's Folly by Lucinda D'Arcy. We learn some amusing, some dismaying info about the production of pulps and potboilers--all of it quite true. Douglas, for example, is forced to kill off a character because she does not appear in the next volume of his ""family saga,"" which has been already written by somebody else. His book, The Hennessy's, is exactly like Clare's family saga, The Lundquist's, ""only Irish."" And so the hacks (self-defined so nobody else can say it first) eat, drink, question themselves, go to the bathroom, talk, talk, talk and eventually get drunk enough to penetrate to tender tissue. Ironically, in their mutual self-absorption they utterly misread McCloy, the sympathetic barkeeper, whose own personal sorrows are full of the stuff of real novels. Subtle and sardonic, Hacks at Lunch is a long step up the literary ladder from Bringle's last two slick novels (The Footpath Murder, 1975; Open Heart, 1982). It's also stretched thin, alas--even physically, eked out, as it is, with white space to fill its 179 pages. Insiders may love the interplay, but most readers will find it neither funny nor profound enough to overcome the lack of strong story propulsion.