Time passes: nothing better can be said of it,"" is the sum and core of this new collection of stories by the Australian recipient of the 1973 Nobel Prize and also epitomizes his way of putting a spin on traditional expressions and received ideas. The protagonists of the novella-length ""A Woman's Hand,"" ""Five-Twenty,"" ""Sicilian Vespers,"" and the title story are ordinary middle-aged bourgeois couples so bound by convention there is no consolation in living. Love, as one of them guesses, seems to have been ""strangled -- or worse, deformed, in both of them, at birth,"" and what they have instead is a straitjacket of habit. ""The Cockatoos"" alone offers a vision -- the only vision the residents of this neighborhood of ""good addresses"" will ever have. The wild, vagrant birds are screeching dazzlers who, despite their kind eyes, slash and ""menace one another like human beings."" ""The Night the Prowler"" focuses on a child of the middle class, a marriageable young girl whose ""rape"" leads into an increasingly surreal world of negation and squalor. The combination of hard realism, symbolism, interior monologue, lyricism and every other strategy and skill is sui generis. White is a shifty, complex artist with the ability to hit and run at any point in his narrative -- maintaining a distance from emotional involvement while inexorably tightening those screws.