If the title of McCracken's first collection leads you to expect romantic comedy or even a light touch, forget it; this James A. Michener-award-winning author's characters are outcasts, and their lives are grim indeed. In nine stories--all but the title one narrated in the first person--McCracken investigates the lives of the freaks. ``It's Bad Luck to Die'' records the thoughts of a tall, blond, relatively young widow as she comes fully to appreciate that her now-deceased dwarflike elderly husband Tiny, a tattoo artist, has covered every inch of her body in decals, slogans, and copies of Masterpieces of the Renaissance. In ``Some Have Entertained Angels, Unaware,'' a grown woman, a heavy drinker herself, remembers growing up in a house full of alcoholic men whom her father, a widower, collected like strays before he, too, disappeared into the nether reaches of the bottle, leaving the men to raise her. The 55-year-old male narrator of ``The Bar of Our Recent Unhappiness'' (``I am a man of many small mistakes. I am not competent'') quaffs beers with a young man whose mother is dying in the hospital room where the narrator's common-law wife vegetates after a car accident; in the end, the two men get drunk and speak incoherently of their grief. Other characters include a retarded midget, once a twin, who turns up at the door of an armless woman, an old acquaintance from their circus days; a 74-year-old convicted wife-killer, paroled now to a sleepy halfway house; a child prodigy who has grown into a disheveled woman riddled with self-doubt; and, in the title piece, an old woman who's made a career of visiting ``relatives'' she finds in phone books. Many of these stories taste of the writers' workshop--well-crafted but dispassionate and cheerless. An able apprentice Raymond Carver--interesting, but not to everyone's taste.