Five stories and a novella--and, as Oates readers know, much charitable patience is needed in order not to fold in and will before Oates' pawkiness, her over-cementing of points, her long stretches of emptily elaborate prose. Also, as usual, the preoccupations are dark. "Queen of the Night" posits the marriage of a seemingly innocent older woman to a younger man--and his destruction at her hands; the malign gloss, however, seems nearly spray-painted on here. Three of the stories are uncomfortably obvious: in "The Precipice," a peaceful man is drawn demonically to fighting; in "The Tryst," a young woman attempts suicide in the bathroom of her married lover's house while his family is out; in "A Middle-Class Education," we attend the nervous breakdown of a man who's witnessed a downtown murder. And the title novella is equally transparent, as well as being guiltiest of the lot when it comes to padding: a brilliant but extremely neurotic young man nurses a desire (reciprocated) for a young girl cousin staying the summer at his parents' beach house--a situation which Oates renders with an urgent cleanness, a pure passion, before lapsing into her standard grisly agenda. The sole effective story here, then, is "In the Autumn of the Year": an aging, feted writer comes to a college to receive an award and encounters the son of the married man with whom she'd had her life's one grand (and documented by herself) affair; the son lets her know, unsparingly, of the permanent disaster she brought to his own life and that of his mother. This story, with its pent-up scald, is almost sufficient to wipe out the intolerable foot-dragging of its companion-pieces. But, on balance, it's a disappointing collection from a gifted, epically erratic writer.