Pye, a British novelist (The King Over the Water, 1981, etc.) and journalist living in New York, has put together a brittle, impressionistic collage of historical and contemporary items--on early Dutch rule and misrule; immigrant hopes and disillusionment; sexual politics; snobbish Society; the struggle to make it in ``audition city,'' and more--for a portrait-in-time that he calls a ``biography'' of N.Y.C., though there's little sense of organic life or rhythm in its various staccato accounts. Pye's New York--``inconvenient, filthy, crime-ridden, unstable''--is ``a city in decline''; but decline from what? His sweeping historical sketches emphasize greed, corruption, failure, poverty, persecution, and violence from the beginning. What's missing is any sense of the city's charms, whether gritty or glamorous. Though Pye points to the ``myth'' of New York as filtered through films and other images, he doesn't convey the allure (if he even feels it). And though there's enough nasty detail here to add to anyone's store, the material won't be substantially new to readers acquainted with the topics at hand--be they the murder of Yusuf Hawkins in Bensonhurst, the murder of ``architect and voluptuary'' Stanford White in 1906, the murder of sleeping Indians by an early Dutch governor, the suicide of Queens Borough President Donald Manes, or the sad saga of Robert Moses. (A closing bit on a gay male couple who've adopted three brothers, two of whom suffer from childhood AIDS, seems like the ending to a different book.) First published in England, this probably works best as an interpretation for foreigners, not as an analysis that can help us understand ourselves.