A smartly stitched quilt of Americana that could use a bit more color, by a talented essayist (Stolen Words, 1989, etc.) and novelist (Aurora 7, 1990, etc.). Some of these pieces are culled, with minor changes, from The American Spectator, The Yale Review, and Southwest Review. Mallon decided to explore his subjects in ``an attitude of active passivity''; what results is first-rate but frustratingly neutral (for the most part) reporting on 12 ``spectacles''-- divided, sometimes awkwardly, into six matched pairs. The author watches the shuttle Discovery blast off, and then writes about ``ad hoc, can-do little Poker Flats,'' a quasi-private rocket-launching site in Alaska. A lengthy account of a bank-robbery trial is twinned with a report on the impending execution of killer Robert Alton Harris, while a piece on a Rhode Island senatorial election goes with an account of a day with Dan Quayle (in a typical pinpoint description, Mallon calls the Veep ``a sweet, miniature creature in a Republican petting zoo''). The 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor rides alongside a funny account of bumbling at the UN; a description of a rodeo is married to one of a local-hero festival in Michigan; a visit to the Sundance Film Festival precedes a report on the disposal of the late Rex Harrison's possessions (Mallon bought the actor's leaky oak-and-silver wine bucket). The best essays are clever and combative, filled with the jabs and jigs of Mallon's book-length nonfiction: The UN piece ridicules that institution as a ``toy'' world spouting ``sweetened Newspeak''; the spaceflight essays plump for a manned Mars mission; Sundance is exposed as a mannered farce. Otherwise, Mallon seems content to stay in the background, and the pieces suffer, becoming well-crafted Sunday magazine fare, without real bite. Not enough fireworks in these spectacles. Anything Mallon turns out is good--but he can do better than this.