Fifteen pieces from a veteran writer (The Body in Four Parts, 1993; Obscene Gestures for Women, 1989, etc.) that only sometimes get under the skin or into the heart. Kauffman gathers up symbols in a half-casual way so that they seem--whether they really do or not--to reverberate on a single theme. In ``Nightmares for Everybody,'' for example, two apparently gay boys and two adults watch a meteor shower--and one boy reveals that his unstable mother has written to him in her own menstrual blood. The same chance conjunction occurs in ``Girl Games,'' about one woman driving another into Detroit to visit her lover; the driver goes to read on the river front (``The words look like live things. . . . And put together, some of them even make sense''), where she has a Salinger-esque conversation with a little girl. Kauffman's seemingly effortless writerly skills are everywhere apparent, whether in sketches like ``The Ocean with Everything In It'' (a young man becomes obsessed with death), modernist exercises like ``Signed Away'' (surreal, Barthelme-inspired pages portray Emily Dickinson as a modern-day biker), or equally amusing group portraits like ``Baku's Theory'' (an ``immigrant support group'' is formed on the theory that ``It takes fifteen years to know where you are, and to know if it makes sense to be there''). At book's center is ``26 Acts in 26 Letters,'' a wildly inventive but exercise-bookish description of the sex lives of the alphabet (``At work, M's panties are streaked and sticky; N carries the Free Press with him to cover his erection''). Other love stories follow, as do more couples and more characters, including the eccentric Eureka of ``Eureka in Toledo, Weather Permitting,'' of whom the narrator says, arguably apropos of Kauffman, that ``She lurched through words, fell back, picked up a story somewhere else. She wasn't incoherent, but freewheeling, I would say.'' Skilled wordsmithing that's often brilliant, less often moving, and too often dusty in spite of itself.