A diverting but flimsy biography of the newspaper columnist and Algonquin round-tablet. F.P.A. wrote and edited the influential ""The Conning Tower"" throughout the 20's and 30's, but this study strays too far from its announced subject. Like many of the men who came to define New York style, he was born in Chicago. He was Jewish, and had some sense of being an outsider, but is portrayed as typically American in feeling self-created, worshipping neither ancestors nor descendants, He made his career by cultivating the right friends, and made his way without major setbacks. His columns used many contributions, and attracted such young talents as Groucho Marx, George S. Kaufman, Robert Benchley, E.B. White and James Thurber. After his popularity as a columnist waned, F.P.A. made a new career as a panelist on the popular ""Information Please"" radio show. At his height, he was a true tastemaker, telling America what to read and what to see. However, his appeal was lost as he aged; what was brash became cranky. The biographer's pointed, sometimes wisecracking writing shows spark. The break-up of F.P.A's first marriage aa reflected in his daily columns, and the discussion of his gambling are both handled well. Nonetheless, there are too many forays barely related to F.P.A.: essays on feminism and alcoholism, round-table anecdotes in which he was only peripherally involved, overly detailed histories of The New Yorker and Stars and Stripe& These subjects are hard to resist, but they diffuse F.P.A.'s story. Too much times, not enough life.