Our foremost writer about the wilderness now offers us his first collection of short stories--almost all ten about dying and almost all dating from the 50's, though none is apprentice work. Sometimes death here is literal and physical, as in ""Travelin Man,"" which tells of an escaped convict stalked by a hunter on a deserted island that becomes a grave, or in ""The Wolves of Aguila,"" in which an Indian wolf-killer meets his own death on a last hallucinatory trek across the desert. But death is more often an abiding presence or condition than an event, for Matthiessen's true subject is mortality. In ""The Centerpiece,"" he tells of a 1941 Christmas dinner that destroys the last links between an Americanized German family and their European heritage. ""Midnight Turning Gray"" shows a young volunteer worker helplessly watching--and unwittingly hastening--a mental patient's descent into madness. Except in ""Horse Latitudes,"" a comic anecdote about a running quarrel between a Baptist missionary and a Lebanese merchant aboard a freighter cruising the Caribbean, Matthiessen's tone is elegiac; he constantly links the spiritual deaths of his principals to the death of the wild things and spaces around them. In ""Late in the Season,"" for instance, a man's torture of a snapping turtle shows his wife how much she hates him--and in the title story, the finest of the lot, a Washington bureaucrat and his wife fishing in a southern backwater unwillingly ignite a firestorm of racial violence. Matthiessen breaks little new ground here, but nonetheless gives us unforgettable scenes in a somberly compelling tone. If these stories lack the moral outrage characteristic of his recent work, they give us something equally moving: the dispassionate evocation of a world everywhere dying because its people do not know how to live.