If this year's edition were a horse race (and these "bests" can't be denied their competitive aspect), it would be a $3000 claimer. That is, a dud. Maybe it's the tone set by editor Carver from the beginning, in his introduction: a banal Reagan-ish family-and-apple-pie bias ("The reader will find grown-up men and women in the stories--husbands, wives, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, lovers of every stripe. . ."; "I hope people will read these stories for pleasure and amusement, for solace, courage. . .a sense of union maybe. . ."). In any case, only Donald Barthelme's "Basil From Her Garden" exhibits any distilled imagination; Barthelme gets more elegant about despair with each passing year, able to twist it the way clowns twist those thin animal-making balloons. Amy Hempel's "Today Will Be A Quiet Day" also exhibits a lighter touch when it comes to poignance--as does Alice Munro's "Monsieur Les Deux Chapeaux." But everyone else--tried-and-trues like Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, Frank Conroy, Ann Beattie; or earnest newcomers such as David Michael Kaplan, Jessica Neely, Mona Simpson and Kent Nelson--trades in a kind of realism-as-punishment that makes their stories tiresome and--worse--nearly interchangeable. New talents Ethan Canin ("Star Food") and Christopher McIlroy ("All My Relations") are standout exceptions to the general fog, though--and their work should be looked for with real curiosity in the future. But, otherwise, tired nags ran this course, on the whole.