A welcome advance over his messy and confessional Edge of Night (1994), these two novellas by the Duke literary theorist still bear the signs of someone who's spent much of his career thinking about fiction, not creating it. The first, self-reflexive story interweaves elements of the author's childhood with a mythic figure from the Utica, New York, of his youth. Johnny Critelli, orphaned when his mother was assaulted by a union-busting factory thug, grew up to become a union organizer. Nurtured on Shakespeare and anarchist politics, the outsized Critelli enters legend with a barroom stunt that we eventually learn was staged, an effort by Critelli to create his own myth. Meanwhile, the Lentricchia clan of hard-working Italian immigrants eventually produce Frank Junior, the author; among his recollections is the golden memory of a one-hitter he pitched in 1952. Which is better than his obsessional concerns as an adult: Sex and physical ailments. Lentricchia allows both his mother and his current girlfriend to talk, the first worried about what ``Mr. Exaggeration'' will have her say, the second a tough-minded Irishwoman who mocks Frank's inability to confront the familiar dead. Despite patches of postmod babble, this unconventional story/faux memoir builds into a fine poetic narrative. The second novella is more straightforward, but also aggressively disagreeable. At its center is the thrice-divorced ob-gyn, Dr. Richard Assisi, a brooding obsessive. An admitted ``cultured whiner,'' Assisi has never overcome his mother's early death, for which he blames his father. He falls under the spell of the sophisticated, creepy Victor Grazeidei, the owner of a Utica meatpacking plant, who introduces Richard to the slaughterhouse and his after-hours work as an abortionist, both of which are described in gruesome, poetic detail. Even at his most meta-level, Lentricchia aspires to Joycean riffs (with Utica his Dublin) on memory, desire, and the struggles of fathers and sons. Sometimes he succeeds.