Alter means to isolate an ""antiapocalyptic strain"" in modern Jewish literature by which it ""turns out to be not an escape from history but the last line of man's defense against a history gone wild."" But one quickly decides, reading this loosely baled collection of reviews, essays, and introductions, that the strain is very, very elusive. Not that Alter isn't a good man to have on the scene: his interest is not so much in the modern American-Jewish fiction that everyone writes about than in more obscure though no less important names like Charles Reznikoff; also, as a reader of Hebrew, he can report on contemporary Israeli fiction and on Agnon and Uri Zvi Greenberg with all the force of a local reporter. But when it comes to the really big boys, Alter has a little trouble; apropos of Mandelstam and Walter Benjamin, for instance, we hear not so much a defense of imagination as a defensive shoring-up of those major writers' ambiguous Jewishness. Alter's shrewd if academically dry discussion of ""Jewish Humor and the Domestication of Myth"" is the book's finest hour; he's a better generalist than specifist. A broad, tolerant, learned book, then, diminished slightly by Procrustean and apologetic tendencies.