The six stories that make up this first collection vary dramatically in voice and place; but they're linked by Spilman's interest in emotional conflict and the inability to express feeling--an incapacity that, in the meatiest pieces here, can have dire consequences. Old age and death inevitably leave Spilman's protagonists not in a state of grace or enlightenment, but angry and confused. In ""The Old Man Tells His Story and Gets It Wrong,"" a grandfather's WW II story--a harrowing tale of fear and near-death--becomes jumbled with his sense of immediate mortality. In ""Aid and Comfort,"" a divorcÃ‰e who lives near a hazardous hill in San Francisco tries to console a young truck-driver who accidentally kills a man working in the street. And in ""Someone Else,"" an aging bachelor is so attached to his mother and her house that he can't commit himself to his spinster girlfriend, who jilts him, sending him once again into a fantasy scenario with a prostitute. The title novella brings together all these themes in a somewhat busy narrative, a midwestern gothic tale of a rural family presided over by a senile matriarch whose love of sweets eventually kills her. Panoramic in its view, this story of unfulfilled ambition, teen-age alienation, and familial oppression draws its power from what the characters leave unsaid, their inability or unwillingness to speak openly to one another. The two best pieces here take the greatest risk--both are narrated by disagreeable men whose cynicism denies them the slightest pleasures. In ""Eagles,"" a self-satisfied and successful businessman, who takes up bird-watching to relax his ulcers, distrusts a young woman he meets on a ferry who offers to show him an eagle's nest. And, most dramatically, the hard-boiled narrator of ""Balance at Zero"" possesses no redeeming qualities: he's a nasty and miserable man who abuses the friendship of a retarded co-worker, and then beats up a gay hustler to relieve the guilt. If this lengthy story is a bit heavy-handed, that's made up for by its raw energy and convincing tough-talk. A promising debut that, at best, belongs alongside the neo-realist work of Douglas Bauer, Larry Brown, Richard Russo, et al.