Thirteen winning stories by western author Fromm (Blood Knot, 1998, etc.), who trades more on character than on locale in this, his sixth book. Although most of the people in these pages have spent their entire lives somewhere west of Laramie, they are all weighed down by an overwhelming gloom that seems to have migrated straight from Hawthorne’s New England. The narrator of the title story, for instance, is consumed with remorse over his senile mother’s long decline and freakish death (thinking it was summertime, she went swimming and froze in the snow). Not content to watch her fade away during her final years, he—d become a janitor so as to get a job at her nursing home and be close to her; now, with her dead, his life has no purpose. “The Raw Material of Ash” portrays the malaise of a young carpenter and his unhappy wife; once talented and ambitious, the husband now makes cheap cremation coffins for a funeral home and with stupefied regret faces the impending breakup of his marriage. In “Black Tie and Blue Jeans,” a middle-aged loser tries to rekindle his lost sense of hope when he meets a young woman who confesses she used to have a crush on him when she worked at his restaurant years before. “Cowbird” is a heartbreaking account of a childless couple who adopt a sickly infant, while “Doors” describes the domestic traumas engendered by a teenager’s pregnancy. The strangest tale here is “The Thatch Weave—: told from the perspective of a ten-year-old boy who refuses to face the reality of his infant sister’s imminent death, it has a haunting intensity that sets it apart. Vivid and sharp, written with a startling coolness that only serves to heighten the emotional forcefulness of the narratives themselves.