Early work by Belfast-born MacLaverty: these 15 very short stories suggest his strong, secure talent--but they lack the shape and depth of his novels (Lamb, Cat) or the best stories in A Time to Dance (1982). ""The Exercise"" illustrates the widening gap between a schoolboy and his ill-educated father--a theme more richly explored in the Time to Dance collection; other coming-of-age vignettes feature a boy's invasion of his beloved aunt's fierce privacy (old love letters) and teenage intimations of sex and mortality (the familiar parallels) at a public swimming pool. There are neat character-sketches: a pathetic alcoholic on his 50th birthday (with a grossly vivid windup at an amusement park); a hopeless young would-he writer, headed for suicide; a prissy, aging bachelor, quickly finding substitutes for his recently deceased mother. ""The Miraculous Candidate"" is a sly little dazzler--shifting in a few pages from a painful portrait of desperate religious mania (a panicked schoolboy prays for help with an impossible exam) to an irresistible, O. Henry-ish twist that gently parodies Catholic miracle-stories. And while the slightly more ambitious stories here never quite work (e.g., the study of a devoted husband returning home from a business-trip with venereal disease), MacLaverty's ironic feel for Belfast-Catholic domestic situations is on-target throughout--with put-upon housewives wrestling with over-production or guilt-ridden birth control. (One rather heavyhanded piece juxtaposes a truck-driver's thoughts of his overpopulated household with his work in livestock artificial-insemination.) Unprobing sketchwork for the most part, then--but crisp, remarkably economical, and authentic in both social and emotional details: sharp, tender, occasionally amusing glimpses of a gifted writer's first ventures into fiction.