From first-timer Berney, stories that offer fleeting moments of allure, but that in general seem to be casting about for substance and theme. ""News of the World"" may be the most satisfying piece here, its deliberately cavalier lightness of manner comfortably matching its half-serious subject--as a divorced tabloid-stringer in Europe ends up preventing the suicide (she was about to jump from a clock-tower in Munich) of a greatly overweight diva. Other stories, though, feel often gratuitous and thin (like ""The Great Black Houdini,"" about street hucksters in New Orleans) or awkwardly stretched somewhere between tall tale and sitcom farce (like ""In the Weeds,"" a restaurant story in which a frustrated Loatian busboy bites off the nose of an irritating customer). Extended anecdotes struggle to gather weight through accumulations of jazzy or down-home language, as in (with greater success) ""Jesus in the 'Do,"" about ex-high-school classmates turning 30 in a depressed oil-field town, or (with lesser success) in ""This Is a Band,"" about a would-be rock band in Oklahoma City. A man tries to re-create a jungle in a pet shop in the saccharine-ended ""All God's Pets,"" and ""Christmas Eve at the OK Naked Corral"" labors through artificiality to allow for a symbolically perfect but psychologically skeletal ending. Berney's forays into the early 1940's offer Doctorow-like charms in the studied accuracy of their period detail, but they lean as well on cardboard characters--as in ""One Hundred Foreskins,"" where a Babbitt-esque midwestern businessman holds his daughter's American-Indian suitor at bay--or sacrifice their psychological strengths to a glib topicality, as when ""July 1940,"" about a family of Okies driving to California, is skewed unconvincingly into a dramatic set-piece about civil rights. Surfacings of talent in stories that feel, overall, like practice.