A dozen insightful paragraphs manage to save this novella and five short stories from an otherwise fatal lack of drama--disappointingly flat fiction by the author of A Stay By the River (1985) and Pastorale (1982). Engberg's fascination with life's moments of quiet desperation informs all the tales in this collection in one way or another--from the opening novella, ""Sarah's Laughter,"" which portrays a retired book reviewer's feeble attempts to resist the overtures of his former wife; through a young girl's confusion in ""On the Late Bus"" as she journeys from the home of her self-absorbed father to that of her neglectful mother; and a waitress's irrational fear in ""The Dead Also Eat"" when a bag lady occupies one of her tables every afternoon for a week. In evoking characters on the brink of developmental change, struggling to cope with the present using inadequate tools from the past, the author is in her element. The results are a few truly memorable scenes: a junior-high-school teacher's astonishment in ""Afternoons, Corridors"" when her overachieving best friend describes a mystical vision she experienced years before; the utter relief the aging hero of ""Sarah's Laughter"" feels when his daughter tells him he can will a disturbed and frightening neighbor to disappear; a middle-aged woman's realization that her grown son has fallen in love. Such honest insights make the frequent long, lifeless passages all the more disappointing--as do the often abrupt endings that occur just as an emotional connection has finally been made. Uneven work by a gifted author.