After a long stretch of portentous yet limp throat-clearing, novelist Delbanco (Sherbrookes, etc.) offers the slim substance here: three small, chatty studies in literary "collegiality"--all of them involving writers who lived in the same area of England (Kent and East Sussex) around 1900. ("They drawl and carry pistols and flourish their umbrellas or their walking sticks. They will change the face of fiction in our time.") First come the last days of American wonder-boy and fun-loving host Stephen Crane--and how the others reacted to his early demise: Delbanco argues (not very persuasively) that, contra Leon Edel, Henry James did probably agonize over Crane's death; he suggests that Ford Madox Ford be given "the benefit of the doubt" re his purplish recollections of Crane; he celebrates the intense Crane/Conrad friendship; and he finally ponders Crane's artistic decline, ending up on a characteristically blurry note. ("Had he recovered, so might have the prose.") Then there's another look at the much-chronicled Conrad/Ford collaborations, with brief analysis of the different degrees of collaboration (re "Amy Foster," Nostromo, and Romance) and consideration of the partnership's influence on both writers' later work; Delbanco contends that "If Conrad gained in fluency while working on Romance, Ford learned profluence"--and that "Ford released the elder man to create profound scenarios by helping him to realize the surface of his texts." And, finally, there's the unlikely acquaintanceship of James and H. G. Wells ("It is as if Borges and Jimmy Breslin met for cocktails weekly")--a relationship that soon deteriorated into condescension from James and cruel parodies from Wells; yet here again Delbanco is determined to accentuate the positive, asserting that "What seems exceptional here is that Wells and James were close--not that they disagreed." Throughout, in fact, Delbanco leans on his Pollyanna-ish view of writer interaction so hard (especially in a goopy epilogue) that even his soundly-based points become suspect. And the sense of woolly-mindedness is compounded by the prose, which is slangy yet stuffy, with clichÃ‰s running free ("forest for the trees," "with a grain of salt," "worth his salt," etc., etc.). All in all: familia material, sketchy--and unconvincingly didactic--treatment.