Postmodern writer Bernard (whose fiction has appeared in Grand Street, Granata, Harper's, and The Paris Review) uses spare and pretty prose to flesh out the campy, mock-apocalyptic questions of culture and self that drive the stories in this collection. Alas, in most of these tales, the ""postrealist"" razzle-dazzle turns tinny. Bernard leads up to the longish title story with a clever, adroit mixture of narrative tones. A send-up of a philosopher, smug ""in the analytic tradition,"" precedes a lean, wistful remembrance by a professor of a bright, beautiful girl who traded in her promise for a drab, impoverished life. (There is a trace of Bernard's favored turn-about ending here, in which the professor still yearns for the approval of the prematurely aged woman, which gives this conventional story a round finish and emotional force.) In one sketch, the narrator learns from his own experience with rejection to accept a man who talks too loudly in museums; in another, a middle-aged man tries to decide whether he can afford to spend six of his remaining years reading Dante. In these and other sketches there are moments of humor and wisdom. However, in longer, sophisticated pieces, a good premise stretches into something unintentionally somber and sophmoric. In the title story, a youngish ""underground man"" lives like a hermit in a boardinghouse in an unnamed city for seven years for the purpose of ""working within utterly severe limitations and digging to some core, some truth."" He resorts to a minute inspection of himself in a cracked mirror and, above all, a careful examination of his toilet routine. He regularly rapes a young Polish girl and avoids the lust of his repulsive landlady, Mrs. Maldive. Eventually we learn that he had an abusive father, but that doesn't go far to explain why, in the end, the underground man embraces the horrible Mrs. Maldive. The story collapses; it's childish, tedious, sour. Despite some bright patches, this collection is one to pass by.