Four stories in familiar voices that hover variously near the average. Most successful is the first piece, ""An Unexpected Death,"" in which a typical Saturday in the life of a middle-aged family man is described, ending with his realization that what's been bothering him (something has been bothering him, making him snappish and short) is simply enough a fear of death (""Anymore it seemed like he couldn't get anything right. As Raleigh thought that, a long-sought answer simply presented itself. He was going to die. By God, he was going to die""). This story's method of slowly accumulated but telling detail is put aside in the ominous, elliptical, and less successfully inventive ""Blackburn,"" in which a man visits his hospitalized wife in another city, is blamed vaguely by a Kafka-voiced doctor for having caused her condition, then leaves town on foot, headed--perhaps?--for suicide. Conventional detail takes over again in ""A Period of Grace,"" the walking-pace story of a father's death by cancer, told at top-heavy length by a son--an English teacher and writer--who feels guilt at knowing he'll use the death as material for fiction. In ""The Family,"" a writer (just divorced) goes to an artist's colony on a jungle-grown island, where, amid the symbols of a faintly satanic proprietor, a skull found in a stagnant pool, and a wading bird that poses in the shape of a question mark, the writer at last unleashes his suppressed rage (though at what isn't wholly clear) by riding too hard on an exer-cycle. Homely earnestness, but, after the first story, little in lift or freshness.