Ford's stories can be individually striking, but corralling them lessens the effect: they seem like the same story done over. A man remembers back to the unhappy, inarticulate lives of his Northwestern parents--and finds himself dumbfounded by the melancholy, stoic gravity of living. Or else the same man participates in unsavory rites (illegalities, adulteries) that lead him to be dumbfounded by the melancholy, stoic gravity of living. (It more often than not hits him while fishing.) Many stories here seem like three Raymond Carver stories stitched together, but Ford can never find the shut-off valve before delivering himself of some vague, portentous piety or other: "What we did, I thought, didn't matter so much. Not to us, or to anyone. . . It was the same, and we were all the same then. She was pushing everything out in order to distinguish the world. It's no worse or better than other ways." Lawbreaking here is in constant touch with stalemate, someone always dragging along a past that's checkered at best; and in style, Ford's mannerism of the self. consciously hard. boiled comes off as a cross between Raymond Chandler and Hemingway's "Big Two-Hearted River." But two stories are quite fine here: "Empire"--a classically muzzy liaison on a train, where tawdriness seems less the point than grace; and "Optimists"--true, awful violence is set into the trivial contexts where it really does occur and which it's unable to transcend. Ford's grim meandering serves these best--and makes them the standouts in an otherwise unexceptional collection.