Death. Contemporary Journalism. Those are two rather big ideas for a rather small novel of people and ideas, but Stern (Golk, Other Men's Daughters) has a go at it, with flawed, undeveloped, yet entertainingly provocative results. After all, he has Fred Wursup on his side--Fred Wursup, author of the bestselling Down the American Drain, ""one of the most-interviewed 'seldom-interviewed' celebrities in America,"" and one of the most appealing fictional men of letters since Bellow's Charlie Citrine. Like so many of his literary forebears, burly Fred is divorced and newly equipped with a young beauty (a geophysicist!), but these relationships, you'll be relieved to hear, are not Fred's angst (though he does use binoculars to spy on his ex's Lexington Ave. apartment from his Lexington Ave. roof). No, Fred's crises are connected to his role as interviewer, investigator, image-maker--one of the ""visiting voyeurs"" who, ""understanding everything, committed to nothing,"" have proliferated since Nixon became ""the great pilot film for modern exposure."" One of Fred's subject-victims, an utterly isolated playwright, has (finally, so they say) committed suicide, but never mind: Fred's off to Rome to do a N. Y. Times Magazine interview-piece about a politician-friend's early family life--a piece that will, Fred hopes, defuse a cruel exposÃ‰ that's about to break. A touchy, touching business, because ""the intimacies would be converted into publicity, benevolently but beyond recall. All but the hardest and deepest people would find that unbearable."" Fine and good. Very. But Fred's other current project is a think-piece on Death, and his reporter's impulse takes him to a hospital ward, to Cicia Buell, who's terminal and lovely and twenty-two years old. Stern handles Fred's doomed infatuation with taste and wisely skewed tenderness, just as he handles Fred's nursing-home visit to his senile mother, his reaction to his aged father's suicide. But Cicia's death doesn't really hook up with the central concerns, and other sequences, however affecting, steal energy and pages from the areas of Fred's life that do carve out a unique space. An expansive blueprint might have encompassed it all without loss of power; Stern's episodic short-form--bubbling throughout with the witty, stop-and-think ironies that owe much, but far from all, to Bellow--suffers from Trying Too Much. In the course of that over-reaching process, however, Stern has caught, alive, a man and his job, a place--New York, fresh again--and a time: Today.