An uneven debut collection by an O. Henry Award-winning southern writer. Johnson shows a sure hand in stories where adults look back on southern childhoods. The tone is familiar, but in the best pieces, the author relies on the readers' expectations of the South to moving effect: in ""Crazy Ladies,"" it is entirely credible that Grandma Howell--terrified but maintaining a proper social facade of hospitality--would entertain an escaped madwoman with chitchat, butter cookies, and iced tea, an incident that brings her grandson a fearful insight. In the more hard-edged nostalgia of ""Leavings,"" a woman returns home to rural Georgia after the suicide of the peculiar, perhaps retarded, cousin who was her childhood companion and whose memory is now to be effaced. ""Distant Friends"" tells of a ""gypsy child of the Sixties,"" now 40 years old, who's too irresponsible to be counted on by his devoted friends but too disconnected from real life ever to be blamed. Many of the stories slip into triteness: ""Grieving"" (a widow meets a woman at graveside and learns her husband had a lover); ""A Summer Romance"" (the attractive stranger on the beach turns out to be a psychopath; the clichÃ‰s of romance writing may represent unsuccessful parody); ""The Metamorphosis"" (an overly familiar sketch about a star devoured by adoring fans--except this star is a female impersonator). Almost every story here contains a chilling or illuminating moment, but there are missteps--melodrama and banality--as well.