Twenty-one downbeat short stories from poet and novelist Cudahy (Nectar at Noon, 1989, etc.), chronicling with more imagery than insight the grim lives of men, women, and children trying to survive in a hostile world. In settings ranging from a house in the Maine woods to a Los Angeles apartment, Cudahy's characters' instinctive reaction to pressure is flight. With the one exception of the despised Dora, who exacts her own revenge on a high-school clique in ""The Pack,"" they all prefer to run rather than endure or even change their always miserable lives. In the title story, a grieving son flees his family in the city and heads to Maine as he always has for Christmas, even though his mother, who lived there through the winter because she preferred to ""stay on like the crows,"" is now dead. A black basketball player bound for college on an academic scholarship flees his vacationing parents, who are staying in an affluent uncle's lakeside cabin, because he feels alienated from their old-fashioned values and expectations (""Stay Tuned""); a young boy runs away from his mother in Los Angeles because he can't stand her lies, only to find that his father is an even bigger liar (""Boy""); a husband, terrified that the mounting pressures of his life will make him violent, heads to a remote cabin and befriends a she-wolf (""Peak""); and in the most fully realized story--""Best of Friends,"" another sour commentary on relations between the sexes--a young woman refuses to tell her boyfriend that she's pregnant and moves in with her aunt. Others, like the self-consciously surreal ""Calcutta Connections,"" ""Minna's Woods,"" and ""A Shoe, a Fable,"" limn despair at the suffering and loss of children. Often vivid language fails to relieve the relentless gloom. No day-brighteners these.