A depressing, disappointing first collection from accomplished gay biographer, novelist, and essayist White (The Burning Library, 1994, etc.). All eight stories here suffer from the weight of dread. In ``Pyrography,'' the fear is that of gay teen Howard, on a camping trip with two straight friends, while ``Running on Empty'' chronicles an American expatriate's visit to his relatives in Texas--a visit plagued by the young man's terror that his HIV infection will explode into full-blown AIDS and leave him at the mercy of the strangers who are his family. In ``An Oracle,'' Ray loses his longtime lover to AIDS, then goes to Greece, where he has a mindless fling with a male hustler. Here, as in most of the pieces, White enumerates the habits, traits, and tendencies of his characters, usually in the past tense, never letting them evolve, never letting them breathe with any verisimilitude. ``She had little sense of the dramatic possibilities her life provided,'' he comments of a woman in ``Running on Empty''--a remark that, unfortunately, could also be made about the author's depiction of all his characters, including those in, say, ``Palace Days,'' in which two New Yorkers move to Paris after the glory days of gay liberation end abruptly with the onset of the AIDS epidemic; they try fatally to keep their voracious and unsafe sexual appetites fed as friends and former lovers die off all around them. Throughout, the volume is filled with intelligence and clever, wry observations (``Like other brilliant men and women he dissolved every solid in a solvent of irony,'' the emotionally barren narrator of the title story says of another narcissistic American in Paris), but these moments are isolated and never connect into a coherent vision as they do so brilliantly in White's nonfiction. A dour side-trip by the well-traveled White.