From British writer Mackay (Dunedin, 1993, etc.), an uneven collection of short stories that graphically expose the cruel realities of daily life. Set in the British wasteland of stopped drains, overgrown gardens, and stale fried fish that has become the preferred literary turf of contemporary English writers grappling with a national malaise, the stories range from the macabre to the downright nasty. A single woman's uneasy relationship with an immigrant shopkeeper ends in a bizarre murder (""Bananas""); Claudia, an aging writer living in the country, plans to kill her neighbor's children on Halloween (""The Thirty-First of October""); and a woman visiting her father in a nursing home dies during a struggle over a knife about to be used to cut pizza (""A Curtain with the Knot in It""). Three tales are particularly unpleasant: ""Angelo,"" in which an aging poet and beauty is brutally assaulted on her way home from her first lover's funeral; ""Perpetual Spinach,"" whose protagonists -- a pair of kindly senior citizens injured in an accident -- are neglected by yuppie neighbors who covet their house; and ""The Most Beautiful Dress in the World,"" a portrait of a distraught woman who murders the gas man in her despair. The best works in this collection are the title story (the only one that has appeared previously in the US), which shows a mystery writer suddenly recalling her own murderous past, and ""Cloud Cuckoo-Land,"" the chronicle of a do-gooder, accused of being out of touch with reality, who fears that he may be just ""an empty tracksuit filled with air."" Taken as a whole, however, the constant parade of defeats and disasters gets pretty wearing. Much good writing, but not enough to make these tales of the down and out transcend schematic plotting and overworked emotions.