IN VICIOUS CIRCLES - a nice play on words, considering the route the author believes justice takes - we are overwhelmed by Mafia, politicians, corporations, judges, prosecuting attorneys and their friends on the defense side of the table. The sweep of Kwitny's presentation is so extensive - including pieces on trucking, banking, longshoremen, clothing, liquor and especially the meat industry - and the crimes are sometimes so intricate, and the hoodlum interrelationship so complex, that the effort to keep them all sorted out finally leaves the brain sodden.

But that reaction, in fact, simply proves the virtue of this book. It is a marvelous piece of grotesque art. It is like an enormous mural by Hieronymus Bosch in which hundreds of strange evil creatures perform this perversions against a background of tangled underbrush. One cannot grasp it all at one viewing, and one's stomach rebels at the thought of viewing it twice. So one comes away not so much with the memory of details as with a diffuse, unsettling, unforgettable impression. Vicious Circles is like that.

Iowa Beef Processors Inc., the world's largest meat company - bigger than Swift, Armour, Wilson, Morrell, and Cudahy put together - found that it could not peddle its prepackaged meat in the greater New York area (where 25 percent of America's meat is consumed) until it did business with Moe Steinman, whom Kwitny describes as a seedy, belching, boozing guttersnipe who fronted for the Mafia. How could such a worm have such power? Easy: Steinman bribed the butchers unions and the supermarket executives. For opening the New York market, Iowa Beef paid Steinman one-half cent per pound in tribute - miilions of dollars a year. These millions, of course, actually came out of the pocket of the consumer.

After years of costly detective work, this gang was finally cornered and brought to trial. So what happened? Typical justice: U.S. District Judge James L. Watson sentenced one supermarket executive to a month in prison and a $5,000 fine for failing to pay taxes on $109,000 in bribes. Some of the other crooked executives didn't spend a day in jail.

As for Moe Steinman, he paid for his riches with six-months "imprisonment" - some of which he reportedly spent playing golf with federal marshals assigned to guard him or at home on Jewish holidays. The union bosses, who had made a career out of taking bribes, were sentenced by Judge Thomas P. Griesa to from four to six months. Griesa appears to have a soft heart: he is the judge who sentenced a fellow to one year for earning $10 million in a nursing home fraud.

Let's go to another case, Charles Anselmo sold a million pounds of meat in one year alone. People who bought it at the supermarket didn't know they were buying horsemeat and meat from cows that had died of diseases. Anselmo was caught. But thanks to the trivial sentence meted out by federal Judge Edmund L. Palmieri, he was back on the street - and back in the meat business - four and a half months after being sent off to a minimum-security prison.

Picking out a case or two like that may be misleading, I wanted you to have a feel for the details, but in isolating details one actually loses the sense of Vicious Circles. Its emphasis is on the genre: the unconscionable corporation, the unreal judge, the hermaphroditic (ethically speaking) lawyer. Above all, Vicious Circles addresses itself to the most pressing moral questions of our time.

Kwitny details the ins and out of Teamster contracts and intermediaries so that he can ask this: "What is the obligation of large American corporations when they are offered the opportunity to sell out their own employees by making a deal with a convicted felon like Gugene Boffa who is financing the activities of hired killers like "Sally Bugs" Briguglio? Many of our largest, most respected corporations . . . know very well who they are really dealing with in the these labor contracts, or if they don't it's because they don't want to know.

"When the corporations mentioned here were called for comment, not one of them spoke up in outrage or condemned the Mob's grip on the trucking industry."

Kwitny details the Iowa Beef scandal so that he can go on to ask questions about the revolving-door legal system. He points out that "Elkan Abramowitz, who brilliantly finagled Moe Steinman off the district attorney's hook, and thus preserved the meat industry empires of Johnny Dio, Chappy Brescia and Paul Castellano," was later "appointed chief of the criminal division of the United States Attorney's office for the Southern District of New York, the largest and most important regional office in the Justice Department."

Most attorneys have been taught to argue that Moe Steinman deserved the best defense he could buy and that lawyers should not be burdened with the reputation of their clients. Kwitny questions both premises. He suggests that Elkan Abramowitz (whom he uses just as a good example) probably must have known he was living "at least in part on money Moe Steinman stole from every meat-eating resident in the greater New York area - the very people whose safety and property Abramowitz was then put in charge of protecting." Can a lawyer escape the taint of such money? Kwitny finds it "possible to envision a just system in which the best professional debaters do not claim an ethical obligation to hire themselves out to whoever has the most money, to defend any argument, no matter how vile, thet the person with the money wants defended."

Washington lawyers, with their revolving-door ideolopy and price-tag sense of justice, will doubtless find Kwitney's argument naive. Most Americans will find it extremely refreshing, if probably hopeless.