Despite some real snoozers, a solid, generally somber sampling of today's established short story writers. This annual collection (edited by former Ticknor & Fields editor Kenison) is what IBM once was in corporate America: steady, reliable, an organ of the establishment (i.e., the New Yorker), with few surprises for conservative investors -- and never mind Apple (i.e., the Pushcart Prize Annual) racing off with a newer, better, funkier product line. Credit Tobias Wolff (In Pharaoh's Army, p. 1113) with letting in a few rays of innovation, although much of the book remains heavy slogging. The collection is weighted with depictions of family dynamics during times of death and separation, including Sherman Alexie's bleak tale of a poor Native American traveling to retrieve his father's body (""This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona""), Alice Elliott Dark's haunting story of a 33-year-old man moving back in with his suburban parents in order to die quietly from AIDS (""In the Gloaming""), David Gates's mind-numbingly boring presentation of a stroke victim's world view (""The Mail Lady""), and Christopher Tilghman's overwrought, turgid depiction of a couple's trauma watching their infant son die of cystic fibrosis (""Things Left Undone""). Humor is at a minimum here, with the exception of Stuart Dybek's brief meditation on not having sex in ""We Didn't"" and Jim Shepard's laugh-out-loud tale of a bumbling professional baseball player in the early '50s, ""Batting Against Castro."" The few gems offer striking voices, namely those of the rambling, drug-addled narrator who tries to come to terms with his father's long-ago death in Barry Hannah's ""Nicodemus Bluff,"" of a brutally honest, fatalistic AIDS doctor who visits his sister at a mental hospital in Thom Jones's ""Cold Snap,"" and of a dam keeper, the narrator of Tony Earley's ""The Prophet From Jupiter,"" who jumbles history with raw, immediate emotions as he tells of his wife being impregnated by another man. Mostly safe, but with enough danger and excitement to make it worthwhile.