This year's winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award wavers between familiar convention and a handling of material that's more alive. By the author of Snap, a novel (p. 7). Among the best of the 12 pieces here is the closing story, in which a narrator reminisces--staying light-footedly this side of the sentimental--about her friendship with an overweight, poverty-touched, brightly stoic but harried mother of young children (""The Habit of Friendship""). Equally successful is ""How to Live Alone,"" about a woman whose husband had died; Frucht's treatment of her material is poignant in its refusal to be pushed toward the conventions of uplift or message, and moments of the writing manage a quietly telling perfection (""Sobbing seemed shocking and dangerous, as if she'd swallowed soom poor animal that was trying to get out""). ""Paradise"" (three women on a picnic, two of whom, in the past, have shared the same man) is an unpretentious delivery of symbols and deft brush strokes (including a superb description of a Caribbean honeymoon); and ""Engagements"" (a young couple who can't get pregnant) leans toward the self-conscious and standardized, though a number of small brightnesses remain. Less successful stories are the ambitious but shallow-peopled ""Midnight"" (a young woman thinks about history and doom), ""Peace and Passivity"" (a callow and rather despicable young man misses his temporarily absent, political-activist girlfriend), and the confused and forcedly-topical title story (a young woman discovers her friend to be a lesbian). ""The Anniversary"" (about a divorced woman) has a moment of laughable comedy but then turns mechanically upon a coincidental scene of attempted rape; ""Winter"" is hand-me-down realism of rural blue-collar lives; while ""Trees at Midnight"" strains for a breath of vitality in the Ann Beattie mode, and ""Fate and the Poet"" remains an immature work (a student love affair that is reawakened years later), busy but empty and missing its reach either as seriousness or as satire. Moments that are fine, among others that are much less.