With his third collection of stories, Carver has securely hit his stride; his stories seem like no one else's. What they do seem like more and more, in fact, are poems--written in a fiat, Far Western contemporary American style, blankly uninflected for long stretches until a metaphor is slipped around to make a tight cinch at the end. The title story--understandably much-anthologized by now--is perhaps the grandest of these. But equally impressive are: "Chef's House," about a failed marital idyll, with a terrifying but always oblique portrait of a man just about to fall off the wagon; "Vitamins"--an intricate, open-ended story of infidelity, menace, the rawness of daily life; and "Fever," an uncharacteristic story (conventionally upholstered, softly written) in which a man is deserted by his wife and left with two small children--yet somehow is able to reconcile himself to life, with help from an elderly housekeeper of infinite benevolence. Elsewhere, however, Carver's tendency toward the pathetic and the sentimental upsets the delicate balance in his work: "Feathers," a wonderful sketch of a low-rent dinner party (the TV left on, the nuts left in the can, a peacock, a remarkably ugly baby), ends with a shabby piece of narrative comeuppance; "A Small Good Thing," expanded from the last collection, now suffers from a moony conclusion stressing peace and oasis; "Where I'm Calling From" is a wildly sentimental story about a drying-out farm--in sharp contrast to the fine, anti-sentimental studies of alcoholism in "Chef" and "Careful." And when Carver stacks the deck this way, you read with interest but feel a little cheated, reactions elicited by the mix of anesthetized style and heavy, soppy metaphor. Still, when he plays it straight, as in "Cathedral," this storyteller works us magically into that supreme fictional zone of intimacy and surprise--making his third collection, despite its frequent wobbles, a distinguished, powerful book from a very special writer.