A powerful and varied debut collection, sharing a theme of loss and alienation, from the author of the highly praised novel The Lost Son (1995). These 13 stories, some of which have appeared in The Atlantic, GQ, and the Antioch Review, could have been titled ""When Bad Things Happen To Good People."" Well-meaning people down on their luck press on, but keep getting hammered by fate. Spencer's heroes, like the man in the title story whose wife has just left him, are the shy types who, as children, ""were always good at hide-and-seek. Too good."" In many of these pieces, wives leave their husbands. And in two, ""Encantado"" and ""All Along the Watchtower,"" Spencer's men watch desperately as their wives lose their minds and are institutionalized. In the grimmest selection, ""The Small Things That Save Us,"" a crippled, hard-luck farmer must watch as his cattle slowly freeze to death. Luckily, Spencer has a deft touch, and his stories never slide into the maudlin; he catches the perseverance exhibited by ordinary people battered by life, trying to make yet another go at love, marriage, children, or a job. In ""This is the Last of the Nice,"" the hero's wife leaves, ostensibly to go rafting, then sends her husband a postcard saying that she's not coming back. Driven by that blow into group therapy, he looks around and reflects that ""It's Junior High. We're backed up against the emotional gym wall, knowing we'll never get invited to dance."" These lucid, wry moments are sprinkled throughout Spencer's work. When he indulges in comedy, as in ""The Hazards of Poetry,"" in which an aspiring romantic poet moves to Venice only to find fetid canals and noisome tourists, Spencer can be devastatingly funny. There are no easy answers here, and no quick fixes. An engrossing collection filled with vulnerable, decent human beings, by a talented observer of decent, taciturn people leading lives of quiet desperation.