A look at modern-day Italy by a New Yorker writer who spent part of his childhood in the peninsula and has been returning for extended visits ever since. This book of essays picks up where Murray's earlier memoirs left off (Italy: The Fatal Gift, 1982). In an attempt to get beneath the picture-perfect Italy described by most guidebooks, Murray delves into the country's back streets, talking to the ``little people''--waiters, shopkeepers, etc.--and into its darkest secrets, exploring such recent scandals as the collapse of the Rizzoli publishing empire and the murder of Italian playboy Francesco D'Alessio by American model Terry Broome. Some of his essays are place-oriented, others center on people, but all portray a complex culture afflicted by industrialized ills yet still imbued with a strong sense of the past. Murray is at his best when making small insightful observations (``the old people seem, in a way, to be mourning for a way of life which is vanishing'') or relaying surprising tidbits of information (murder is rare in Rome). His essays on Sperlonga, once a poor village, now a fashionable resort; on Naples, ``an elegant old invalid'' still recovering from the earthquake of 1980, and on the D'Alessio affair are especially fascinating. Still other essays fall surprisingly flat. Murray is occasionally repetitious (his Pozzuoli and Naples chapters are very similar) and bland. The book lacks cohesion as well, and although he tries to bring it all together through his final portrait of ``The Last Italian,'' ``living out his last days...in the streets of San Francisco,'' the conceit doesn't quite work. But despite the lack of a strong unifying shape and occasional weak spots, Murray's thoughtful, well-written essays offer unusual insight into the daily concerns of late-20th-century Italy.