With four fine novels (Kiss of the Wolf, 1994, etc.) to his credit, Shepard seems to be something of a writer's writer--he's rightly admired by critics and his peers, but a wider readership has yet to develop. This first collection of 14 expert tales could easily be the work to gain Shepard greater visibility--it's smart, economical, and each story displays that most elusive quality: integrity. The volume is divided into two sections, one on ``strangers,'' the other on ``family.'' The first group impresses with its wide array of distinctive, convincing voices. In the title story, a former major-league ballplayer takes a job in pre-revolutionary Cuba, where the championship series prefigures the Cold War. Another jock, the narrator of ``Messiah,'' unsparingly describes his maniacal teammate, a female-abusing, violent superstar. A short piece, ``Reach for the Sky,'' unerringly brings to life an animal- shelter worker who thanklessly deals with the erstwhile owners of abandoned dogs; another captures the self-defining lingo of fighter pilots (``Who We Are, What We're Doing''). Other voices Shepard channels include a clueless adolescent girl on a mission to uplift a poor friend (``Spending the Night with the Poor''), and in a memoiristic tale, German director F.W. Murnau during the making of his epochal film Nosferatu. The stories in the family section explore such things as the nature and particulars of growing up ethnic and Catholic, the struggles to communicate within a family, and the painful loss of loved ones. The effect of an Italian grandmother's death is traced in ``Touch of the Dead''; ``Eustace'' is nothing less than a Catholic version of Philip Roth's great story ``Conversion of the Jews'': A parochial schoolboy infuriates nuns with his persistent, troubling questions. And ``Mars Attacks,'' one of several wrenching pieces about brothers, uses a wrangle over that infamous trading-card series to chronicle the difficult relations of two siblings. A virtuoso collection.