More impressive work from the author of a psychiatric-ward memoir (W-3, 1974) and semi-autobiographical stories (Blue in Chicago, 1978). The first of these three longish, unconnected stories is by far the best: in ""Birds of a Feather,"" narrator Esti begins with musings on her noisy, feuding, Chicago/Jewish, postwar family--seemingly freeform reminiscences (gangsterish in-law Boaz, vulgar Uncle Reuben and his hillbilly bride Luellen, a flurry of fleshy aunts); but the comic pieces sneakily build up momentum--especially as another creepy uncle arrives from Europe (a hollowed-out concentration-camp survivor)--and when time comes for yet another family funeral, a superbly unsentimental finale brings together the grossness of adulthood, intimations of mortality, and teenager Esti's first fumbles beyond necking. ("" 'You mean that?' I said. 'There? That'll never fit there.'"") The other stories are more earnest, lacking this seductive blend of comic surface and dark implication. ""The Old Wheeze"" is a narrative essay on fear in its infinite variety: Howland sketches in a single ordinary Chicago evening--a divorcee comes back from an afternoon date with her older, Jewish poet-lover, who drives the elderly black babysitter home--in order to explore the insecurity of all four souls (the divorcee's small, possessive son too); and if the thematic development is a trifle thin and heavyhanded, the character-detail is splendid, while the sonata-like pacing is nothing short of breathtaking. And ""The Life You Gave Me,"" with a grownup narrator in transit to the bedside of her ill, aging, rejecting father in Florida, is the most ordinary of the three; but, though Howland overextends the familiar situation (guilt, love, anger, horror) with reflections on the sociology of Florida's elderly, her evocations of child/parent ambivalence in its last stages are frequently affecting in their unsparing specifics. (""My father is lying right this moment in a hospital bed--they just took out half his gut; my mother is napping on the couch, hands nailed together atop her breast, a mouth like a punctured tire. The Last Act.--And I'm inspecting their possessions? Looking it all over, to see how I like it?"") Quietly powerful, fiercely honest fiction--with, in that opening piece, a touch of fable-like inspiration.