These stories by Smith (Buffalo Nickel, 1989, etc.) set in the southwestern US and Mexico evoke their steamy setting ably, but they won't make readers sizzle. Smith has a strong command of traditional short-story forms- -letter, fable, straight narrative--from which he does not waver. He creates round characters, whose types vary widely, but all of whom remain realistic. His plots are consistently imaginative and well-executed. In short, he is sturdy and moderate, an excellent artisan. In many of the stories, differences of culture, race, and class lead characters to epiphanies. ``The Plantation Club'' contrasts two white-boy wannabe musicians with the serious black jazz culture of a small town. ``Child Guidance'' compares American professors on sabbatical in Mexico to their 14-year-old hustler tour guide, Enrique, or Henry. ``Plane'' and ``Domestic Help'' create drama by solving small mysteries. In ``Plane,'' a father tries to fathom how his loser of a son paid for an expensive birthday present, then wrestles with the dilemma of whether or not to keep it. ``Domestic Help'' depicts an odd love triangle between Vera, a gringa in Mexico, her maid, and the maid's husband: What is Vera's relationship to the husband? Will the outsider prevail in a close-knit village? The most impressive story is ``Tickler,'' about a boy's perception of his parents' not-our-kind-dear friends, the Kneus, and their impending divorce. It filters the complexities of adult social rituals through the boy's eyes, resulting in a detailed, contemplative, and clear portrait of an interaction that is subtle, comic, and selectively misunderstood. Smith eschews brilliance for competence and reliability. His stories are like the nice boy you date while looking over your shoulder for a rebel.