Fourteen variously weird tales from the producing half of the Coen Brothers movie team. Though only one of the stories is titled ""It Is an Ancient Mariner,"" most seem to be told by somebody more determined to buttonhole his audience than to explain exactly what he has in mind. One of Coen's two favorite subjects, as you'd expect from Films like Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, and Fargo, is seriously skewed annals of crime. ""Cosa Minapolidan"" chronicles the efforts of a clueless crime boss to establish his reputation after he migrates to the Twin Cities. ""Destiny"" follows the world's worst boxer through his equally unsuccessful stint as a bedroom dick. ""A Fever in the Blood"" asks how another private eye copes after getting his ear bitten off. The title story tosses a California weights-and-measures man into a Japanese blackmail plot. Coen's crime stories work up to climactic tableaux rather than resolutions, and therefore aren't all that different from his other stories, which focus on the psychopathology of everyday life. He follows a father on a hellishly ordinary camping trip with his two sons in ""The Boys,"" wonders what might happen to Hebrew school bullies in ""The Old Country"" and ""I Killed Phil Shapiro,"" and recounts selected events leading up to a long-suffering woman's murder of her husband in ""It Is an Ancient Mariner."" The deadpan, playfully grave tone throughout both kinds of stories is amusingly consistent, whether Coen is evoking Samuel Beckett or Philip Marlowe with a propeller atop his fedora. Surprisingly, three dialogues--""Johnnie Ga-Botz,"" ""The Old Boys,"" and the promisingly titled ""Hecter Berlioz, Private Investigator""--are both less funny and less substantial. Maybe they need John Goodman and Frances Macdormand to fill in the blanks. A final surprise: ""Red Wing,"" the one story that tries to root weird abnormalities in weird normalities, is a bit too precious to come off. Like this debut collection as a whole, though, it's a valuable portrait of the artist as a middle-aged neophyte.