After the mixed reception of his first novel, Fishboy (1993), Richard returns to his strong suit, short fiction (The Ice at the Bottom of the World, 1989): stories (all have appeared previously in high-profile venues) that display a singular talent, with a rich and versatile style, ranging from tough-guy lyricism to the more defining tales of sad and forgotten children. Such is the title piece: the abandoned boys on a hospital charity ward transform themselves into wild animals in order to escape the horrors of their lives (in a modern turn on Ovidian metamorphosis). The other boys on a similar ward, in ""The Birds for Christmas,"" have a much simpler desire: to watch Hitchcock's shocker on Christmas Eve. ""Gentleman's Agreement"" relies on a mean parent to provide the pathos: a forest firefighter who submits his disobedient son to some cruel lessons. In a more surreal mode, Richard cooks up a little voodoo on the bayou, when ""Death"" argues with a little boy, who mistakenly assumes the reaper has come for his feverish brother. Meanwhile, the lowlife tales here rely more on the accumulation of scuzzy details: ""Where Blue is Blue,"" full of freaks and grotesquerie--and also a perfect film scenario--is told by a boozy, glue-sniffing no-count who helps a buddy rig a fishing contest, and also cover-up the murder of a sideshow contortionist. Also set at the seashore, ""Fun at the Beach,"" is a wild fantasy of white-trash antics mixed with vampirism. Richard forms a single sentence (""Charming I Br, Fr.dr. wndws, quiet, safe. Fee"") into a menacing and manic narrative about insomnia. ""Plymouth Rock,"" on the other hand, is in the voice of a drunk loser who still lives at home, and hangs around in a Jetsons robe all day while his brother works for the Secret Service and considers him a security risk. Whether goofy and substance addled, or strangely naive, Richard's original voices invite you into a world that's both sad and surreal, and always worth the stay.