Nine stories and a novella--and, as in Dubus' first collection, Separate Flights (1975), the spirit of loss is in the air--but only in the air; despite considerable line-by-line, moment-by-moment virtues (e.g., [he had] ""the metabolism of a pencil sharpener""), none of these polished stones ever quite touches bottom. Three stories spot burgeoning epiphanies in the adolescence of Paul Clement: trying to understand his distant father's awkward tenderness, trying to understand his own attraction-to/repulsion-from a doomed school bully--the pleasure in pain, the lures of hatred. ""Paul Clement"" turns up later, as a numbed victim of Marine Corps basic training (plowing on even when his comrade-in-ordeal bails out), but the name-link adds nothing but distraction, a wrinkle instead of a resonance. Dubus also uses the military-base milieu--sketched in with grim economy--for an ungainly shoot-out between a psychotic sailor and a Marine who's ambivalent about violence; for a portrait of a young career soldier swamped by too much--wife, kids, things--too soon; and for ""Andromache,"" a skillful but stubbornly unmoving tableau: a suddenly widowed military wife edging in and out of mourning. The more Dubus works at close-to-the-bone empathy, in fact, the more it seems to elude him. The title tale of an open-marriage manquÃ‰ in academia--betrayed wife gives herself to dying man--shows the evidence of a major emotional investment. . . with minimal emotional dividends. Strangely enough, only ""The Fat Girl,"" the rather clinical life history of a misfit who thought ""by slimming her body she had bought into the pleasures of the nation,"" approaches the sort of impact that Dubus' narrative and observational powers ought to produce every time out. When the right materials meet his talent, this sensitive craftsman will surely find the involving spark that's missing--just barely--here.