ONE CAN EASILY paint the scene," says the author of Invented Lives, as he launches into a description of a country club dance in Montgomery, Alabama, on the sultry summer evening in 1918 when Lieutenant F. Scott Fitzgerald first met Zelda Sayre. One can easily paint it, that is, if one is James R. Mellow, perhaps the most evocative prose stylist now working in American literary biography. It is no accident that magazines and newspapers at home and abroad have long been interested in printing Mellow's art criticism, for he has an especially strong visual sense, and in his latest biography the portraits of the principal places associated with the Fitzgerald legend are wonderfully vivid.

is no mere exercise in romantic remembrance. On the contrary, it continues the anti-romantic trend in Fitzgerald studies set in motion a year ago in Scott Donaldson's account of the novelist's compulsive womanizing, Fool for Love. "I confess that, over the years, I have become less and less sympathetic," Mellow austerely writes in his preface, "toward people with major or minor talents in any field who waste their gifts on drugs or drink, egotism and temperamental behavior." He sets out to write about the glamorous Fitzgeralds with the intention, he admits, of not letting them "get away with anything," and by and large he has succeeded. The drunken sprees, animal- house shenanigans, ruined relationships with friends, marital infidelities, brawls with taxi drivers, sexual insults to servants, lame excuses for not meeting writing deadlines, fake claims to literary cultivation and treacherously changeable opinions about fellow authors that are remorselessly chronicled in this book make a devastating impression.

In pursuing the question of what ailed the golden couple Mellow is much less systematic. Basically, he sees the Fitzgeralds as having been caught in a crossfire of conflicted and conflicting identities which caused them both to become "masters of invention"; forever creating new versions of themselves, they were never sure of who they really were. In the light of that Freudian formulation, one would have expected to find the biographer taking a long backward glance at Scott and Zelda's formative years -- at the emotional deficits that marked Scott's relationship with his mother and Zelda's relationship with her father, at Scott's "borderline" behavior as a boarding student at the Newman School, at Zelda's success as an adolescent in masking her mental illness behind the image of a madcap Southern belle given to wild escapades, and at the speed with which her schizophrenia worsened as soon as she faced the prospect of departure from the family nest. Unfortunately and unaccountably, Mellow hurries both his subjects into adulthood without adding anything of significance to the psychological insights into their childhoods that can be gleaned from earlier biographies.

Fitzgerald was of the opinion that by 1936 the entire core of his personality was gone. "So there was not an 'I' any more," he wrote in one of his "crack-up" pieces in Esquire. "It was strange to have no self -- to be like a little boy left alone in a big house, who knew that he now could do anything he wanted to do but found there was nothing that he wanted to do." Mellow quotes this confession, and introduces it by collectively characterizing the "crack-up" pieces as "a genuine American document" of the '30s. Yet Fitzgerald's sense of having no identity at all had a longer history than Mellow concedes. Following in the footsteps, as have most cultural historians before him, of Frederick Lewis Allen's Only Yesterday, Mellow separates the '20s and the '30s into compartments labeled "Boom" and "Bust," rather than handling the entire 20-year sequence as a continuous flow. The "crack- up" pieces do not simply testify, as Fitzgerald himself suggested they did, to a post-'20s condition; rather, they restate in more drastic terms the feelings of emptiness that can be found in his letters and especially in his fiction from the very outset of his career. Thus, Amory Blaine, the hero of This Side of Paradise (1920), thinks of himself as belonging to "a new generation . . . grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faith in man shaken." According to the conventional wisdom, those words define the plight of a "lost generation," but when they are tied to the "crack-up" confession they seem more strictly personal.

Speeding past that confession with only one sentence of follow-up commentary, Mellow spends the better part of the next two pages listing the psychological crises which engulfed a number of Fitzgerald's friends and acquaintances at about the time of his own crack-up. It is an extraordinary list, and serves to illustrate one of Mellow's principal strengths as a biographer. As he showed first of all in Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein & Company (1974) and then in Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times (1980), he believes in placing writers in a social circle. In Invented Lives he recreates a whole series of thickly populated milieus, from New York City to Paris to Hollywood. Not since Van Wyck Brooks' Makers and Finders books has a historian of American letters handled large casts of characters as well as Mellow does.

But to borrow his own criticism of The Great Gatsby, the flaw in Invented Lives is "at the center of the diamond." Just as the character of Gatsby remains unsatisfactorily vague, so Mellow's portrayals of the Fitzgeralds do not have enough depth for full understanding -- let alone full sympathy.