Southwestern novelist/historian Horgan (A Certain Climate, 1988, etc.), twice a Pulitzer-winner, offers 17 slight but sprightly essays on his encounters with artistic illuminati. These pieces--many of which first appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Yale Review, etc.--cover five decades, beginning with Horgan's comic meeting, as a teenaged reporter in New Mexico, with the poet Vachel Lindsay, who fended off inquiries about the youngster's poetry by rambling on about The Egyptian Book of the Dead. Two essays uncharacteristically involve not artists but cultural artifacts: the Sistine Chapel (where Horgan found himself all alone in August 1945) and the Vatican Library (where he was allowed to break the institution's ``100- year-rule'' limiting access to archives). Horgan seems most fascinated by the theatricality that celebrities project even when offstage (even the one nonprofessional celebrity here, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, emerges as a deft comic and mimic). But the problem with many of the portraits--for instance, of Garbo, Thornton Wilder, Somerset Maugham, Fyodor Chaliapin, and Broadway actress Minnie Maddern Fiske--is that they're based on such slender acquaintance that character development is nonexistent. The compensating factor is Horgan's succinct descriptive power (on T.S. Eliot: ``His eyes were gray, powerfully taking, under lids slanting aside....The general effect was that of composed good looks at the service of sober good manners''). The best pieces concern figures with whom Horgan became most intimate: Edmund Wilson, wooed by the author into a stint as a visiting scholar at Wesleyan, where the critic memorably displayed his ``oddments and crochets''; and Igor Stravinsky, during his last frail days. Glancing, at times superficial, brushes with the famous, told with affection and charm.