A fine first collection of 12 stories that are richly varied in setting and content, and enlivened by their author's flair for vigorous dialogue and concise summary statement. Gilbert's tales are ostensibly linked by the metaphor indicated by her book's title (and underscored by her use as epigraph of the opening lines of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales). It's true that all her characters seek respect or self-definition, and also that many of them are looking for love, of whatever kind is available, in all the wrong places with all the people likeliest to hurt or disappoint them. More-or-less conventional sexual situations are explored with economy and wit in the title story's account of a young cowboy's truculent relationship with a female ranch-hand, the Saroyan-like ""Tall Folks"" in which a woman saloon owner slakes her loneliness, as it were, by falling for her handsome young nephew, and the amusing ""Landing,"" about a rootless woman's fascination with a sexy paratrooper. Gilbert strikes deeper with several more ambitious stories, most notably the resonant ""Elk Talk,"" a skillful symbolic revelation of a woman's endangered idyllic life in the Wyoming mountains; ""The Many Things That Denny Brown Did Not Know (Age Fifteen)"" (Gilbert has a thing for unwieldy titles), a clever picturing of adolescent confusion, presented through an ingeniously handled omniscient narration; and ""The Famous Torn and Restored Lit Cigarette Trick,"" a nicely understated account of a successful Hungarian immigrant in Pittsburgh whose violent nature becomes the guiding principle in his life. Ranging further still, Gilbert offers (in ""At the Bronx Terminal Vegetable Market"") a hauntingly vivid portrait of a naive porter who tries to convince himself he can run for president of his mob-controlled union. The best kind of debut volume: a striking display of a versatile writer flexing her muscles and tackling a broad array of subjects and themes.