In his first collection of stories, poet Allman (Curve Away from Stillness, not reviewed) drags readers into a New York City and environs peopled with some of the most depressing losers he could dig up. An old gas station attendant with only one leg broods in ``The Tip (1964)'' about his invalid wife who should have died five years ago; in ``Sisters (1971),'' spinster sisters, one with severe mental problems, take the subway to visit their ne'er-do-well brother. Allman begins most stories with extremely lifelike settings. Then, in a botched attempt at experimental narrative, passages jump from present to past, reality to fantasy. ``A Chronic Case (1959),'' for example, charts the life of a man convicted of killing his daughter's lover and his (possibly hallucinatory) involvement with a female prisoner. While these forays into the Great Unknown are obviously intentional, they are too erratic to be of use, serving merely to frustrate readers. Also disconcerting is a monotonous emotional tempo that fails to adapt as the author moves from story to story, character to character. Given this lack of differentiation, the use of dates (mostly in the 1950s) to place the stories seems superficial. Only the three final stories, set in the last decade, take on weight. Allman himself seems more involved in the present, not obscuring his stories with extraneous gimmicks. ``Losers and Gainers (1987)'' is powerful if only because, writing in the first person, Allman offers more insights into his protagonists' motives. The narrator begins by telling readers she could graph her boyfriend's downhill plunge, adding to the metaphor later with ``If he were a stock, he'd be--0.04.'' ``The Substitute (1992),'' in which a Yugoslavian immigrant contrasts the war in her homeland with her granddaughter near death in an incubator, is also particularly vivid. But too many of these stories, like their characters, have long ago stagnated.