The survival of the cynics--in an abrasively intelligent Darwinian debut collection. Gilbert's ten stories, framed by two that include the Galâ€¡pagos Islands as a sometime setting, show us characters creeping and crawling along a bumpy course of moral evolution. Although they've reached a relatively advanced point as late-20th-century humans, that achievement brings them little happiness. These highly evolved people, in fact, seem mostly corrupt, confused, or amusingly, consciously callous. Maybe they have to be like this--a barrelling fighter's instinct appears to be their main means of preservation and their last source of defense, and Gilbert's unsentimental probing of their chances is both raucous and searching. He's unafraid of ugliness, which lends his fiction realism and sardonic thrust. In ""Anaconda Wrap,"" for instance, the potentially clichÆ’d vignette of a has-been Hollywood producer's onenight stand with his assistant is redeemed, comically, not by tree love but by the brio of a small yet brutish mishap: While selfishly lost in the throes of her passion, this cold, base young assistant accidentally breaks the bone in his finger. Another man caught in a midlife crisis (""At the DÆ’jË† Vu"") concludes a hangover by throwing up underwater at a sunny island resort, then watches incredulously as multicolored fish (unavailable or uncooperative while he studiously snorkeled) arrive en masse to swallow his upchuck. But Gilbert's moral scale is more panoramic than just this, and he also writes persuasively about war's consequences, about the rude pragmatists who call themselves TV journalists, about the urge to kill, and about the difficulty of telling one's story--and being heard. Interplay between weary life-veterans and blameless or frightened neophytes gives much of his writing its zest. The subtle Darwinian thematic harmonies of the stories, suggesting Gilbert's promise as a novelist, also distinguish a book that gives this basic advice: ""Keep moving. Please keep moving. Just survive."" To the cynics go the spoils.