It would be hard to think of a more casual or disarming writer than John Cheerer whose stories -- this is his first collection in nine years -- begin with those marvelously underhanded first lines: "The subject today will be the metaphysics of obesity, and I am the belly of a man named Lawrence Farnsworth" or "Reminiscence, along with the cheese boards and ugly pottery sometimes given to brides, seems to have a manifest destiny with the sea." Thus one is launched into a world of myth or illusion or just suburban conformity -- there's a new St. Botolphs story where people are once again living "with composure, lives of grueling boredom" -- sometimes interrupted by a rogue impulse ("Mr. X. defecated in his wife's top drawer" -- or the Cabot daughter who ran away with her mother's ugly seven diamond rings "as glamorous as a passbook"). There's no demonic horror on the lawn or anywhere else this time but another kind of contemporary disfigurement in "Mene, Mene, Tekl, Upharsin." And the title story is about a famous expatriate Nobel prize poet overcome in his old age by an unseemly lewdness. Be it admitted that none of these stories have the memorability (dreadful, debased, unavoidable word) of Cheerer's country husband or his cross-country swimmer but . . . but me no buts. . . all those pleasurable constants are there the bitter lemon nostalgia, the affectionate and truly moral concern, and above all that skewed element of surprise which makes the Cheerer story a rara avis -- a bird that can fly on one wing if necessary.