This is Bell's second collection of stories (Zero db, 1987). While his most recent novels have been patchy (Soldier's Joy, The Year of Silence), his best stories (published in Atlantic, Harper's, Antaeus and The Best American Short Stories) are superb, gritty studies of hardscrabble lives. The vivid and unsentimentally heartrending ""Customs of the Country"" (Best American Short Stories 1989) is about a woman who lives in cluster housing near Roanoke: her husband has been busted, her child taken from her after she abused him, and the man who lives next door to her is beating up his wife two or three times a week. The woman's own mistakes and the system grind her down until she flees--but not before attacking the man next door, a gesture that fails to impress the man's victim. ""Black and Tan"" concerns a tobacco grower whose family ""died out from under him."" He gives up farming, breeds Dobermans, and takes in juvenile delinquents, training them as well until, ""cursed with survival,"" he realizes that ""it ain't any different than breaking an animal, what I been doing to them boys."" Another close-to-the-bone effort, more urban this time, is ""Finding Natasha,"" about a man who returns to the inner city after getting himself clean. Cursed with ""survivor's syndrome,"" he feels ""responsible. . .for like. . .for everybody."" Also interesting, but less successful, are stories where Bell moves away from southern poor life or the gritty urban atmosphere of his first novel, The Washington Square Ensemble (1983). ""Petit Cachou"" is an amusing tale of down-and-outers on the Riviera; ""Holding Together"" is told from the point of view of a white mouse; and the title story is a longish look at an American boy in London who literally begins to bark at people. ""Precision in each image is the key. . .,"" Bell writes in one story, and he's at his most impressive in the short form. One of his strongest books.