A first collection with fewer insights than clichÇs. Five of the ten stories here feature Alex Fader, a spoiled teenager whose father died young of lung cancer. The strong piece of the five is ``A Different Kind of Imperfection'' (one of two that originally appeared in The New Yorker), in which Alex comes home from college at Christmas and tries to understand the parent he never knew by reading his father's notes in the margins of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. The four other Alex tales render rather dully uninteresting moments of his youth, as in ``The Dark Piano,'' which shows young, rebellious Alex having his TV privileges taken away from him and then scheming to watch nevertheless. The remaining five stories are dominated by shallow and often arrogant male protagonists who prey on weak females. In ``The Hot Dog War,'' Walter schemes to pick up a girl at a fast- food joint, only to lose her to a friend; while in ``Nondestructive Testing,'' the same man, a bank employee, tries to woo the firm's pudgy receptionist with chocolate (``Women were like campfires to Walter: warm and comforting in the midst of the wilderness, but if you didn't keep an eye on them you might end up engulfed in flames''). In the title piece, an overbearing yet cowardly man gets off on entrapping a woman who's being hounded by another man; ``Life Under Optimum Conditions'' depicts two yuppies getting intimate by sharing stories of their seediest sexual encounters; and in ``Tearing at the Grapes,'' two other equally unprepossessing young professionals who don't really like each other wearily give in to the need to be with someone else. Limited in perspective and lacking a firm voice, with a quality of writing that doesn't help.