AS SEPT. 11 RECEDES, NOT ALL COVERAGE SUCCEEDS

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The timing continues to be off at Vanity Fair. In its February issue, it was a little early, swooning over our conquering heroes Bush, Cheney, and Powell and all but declaring victory in the War That Will Never Be Over.

In March, with its eyewitness accounts from Sept. 11 Manhattan and a mournful portrait of a hard-hit New York firehouse, it is very late. The magazine even has a letter from its editor (Graydon Carter) that begins, "Like most New Yorkers, prior to September 11 . . .," easily placing it in the first 50 magazines to do so.

Granted, Vanity Fair is a newsstand gorilla, so its firehouse story is penned by a legend, David Halberstam, and its eyewitness piece has a hook: The subjects are two young filmmakers who have the only footage of the first tower being hit - they happened to have been out that day working on a documentary about firefighters.

But as the event continues to find its place in history, tales like these require ever greater richness to set themselves apart from the hundreds that beat them to the press; on that basis, these two fail.

The timing at Esquire, meanwhile, continues to be spot on. It did its eyewitness account last month (and did it much better); in the March issue, it offers a list of 50 "forgotten victims" that I like, even while I don't get most of it. GE genius Jack Welch is an obvious choice, for having the bad fortune of having his book released Sept. 11. So is Donna Hanover, whose saga as one of Rudy Giuliani's women became vastly, instantly less interesting. Many of the others - the Beardstown Ladies, Omar Sharif, and "Larry King's next two wives" - are less scrutable.

For some, such irreverence may be premature - it certainly would have been sacrilegious three months ago to talk about any victims who weren't among the 3,000-plus - but Esquire has found a decent way to be edgy without being insensitive.

On its cover, meanwhile, Esquire mines its home turf with a mix of men's fashion and boy talk. Among the pieces is a best-dressed list that finds a place for Todd English, the Boston chef who "somehow [has emerged] from the land of lumpy, big-and-tall chefs."

THREE-TIMING

It's a tough month for Vanity Fair; it's among a trio of magazines with dispatches from Africa, and again it finishes second with a pale story of not-quite-celebrity murder on the outskirts of Nairobi. The victim, James Fox reports, was Tonio Trzebinski, an artist whose 15 minutes never started, although he did once have a one-man show at a London gallery.

The conceit of the story is that it mirrors a Nairobi slaying that stirred the British press in 1941, but one would have to have been familiar with that uproar for it to succeed. The details go on and on, as Vanity Fair tends to, but I gave out long before they did.

If you want to know about Africa, you would do better to read Outside's story about Mike Tiampati, a member of the Masai nation who traded tradition for a try at Nairobi's modernity. At the behest of writer Rob Buchanan, Tiampati goes back for a visit to his family in the Loita Hills, a region just above the Serengeti Plain that so far has escaped tourist infestation. It's an agreeable, informative portrait that melds Tiampati's struggle to succeed as an urbanite (even if it doesn't justify Outside's cover description of him as a Masai "warrior") with the Masai people's struggle to retain their way of life.

What saves Vanity Fair from coming in last in this comparison is W's snapshot from South Africa. Somehow, in his report from the opulent Earth Lodge hotel, Angelo Ragaza is able to describe the "pristine" Kruger National Park and its "numerous luxury safari lodges" in the same sentence. It's so close to nature, he says, that "leopards trekked through the lobby on opening day"; it's hard to see how that's a good thing.

TWO-TIMING

It's quite a coup to publish Ken Kesey's last interview, especially when it's exclusive, as Relix magazine boasts in the lead headline of its February-March issue. But the accomplishment loses some of its luster when someone else has it too. The March-April My Generation, AARP's magazine for pre seniors, says it has Kesey's last interview as well.

Relix comes from Mike Finoia Jr., who says he met Kesey at a Phish concert in 1997 and stayed in touch; the interview resulted when Finoia, an English major, asked for help with his senior thesis and Kesey invited him to Oregon. The My Generation story comes from Carl Lehmann-Haupt, who partied with Kesey and whose brother, Sandy, accompanied Kesey on the Merry Pranksters' bus trip eastward in 1964.

Finoia's piece is straight interview, while Lehmann-Haupt takes a much more personal approach. He writes that his brother, who had to be institutionalized after the LSD-stoked bus trip, died just a couple of weeks before Kesey did in November. He ends with an affecting afterword about the peace and purpose Sandy finally found in his last few years.