Wolff, in his first--and fitfully successful--collection of stories, ropes us in most surely when he allows himself to get complicated. Played against a mostly flat, denatured narrative tone (something like Raymond Carver's), the more wayward and involved tales break into sharp, often haunting places. In the much-anthologized title-story, life-long disappointment is kindled for a brief angry moment into a magnificent denunciation. In ""Face to Face,"" a newly single woman goes out with a man whom she quickly enough realizes would rather not, would prefer ultimately to be alone. And in ""The Liar,"" a fatherless, 16-year-old boy is caught up in compulsive falsehoods concerning his mother's health. Wolff's male characters are often interestingly peculiar: finicky, demanding, fuddy-duddy at all ages, perfectionist creators of secondary worlds whenever the primary one falls short; and in ""Passengers,"" the banality of a relationship is made so threatening and stifling that you almost gasp for breath. But the other stories are not nearly as good as these--sometimes too ironic and predictable (""Hunters in the Snow""), sometimes too self-consciously detached--and Wolff's talent is still clearly in its testing stage. At its best, however, when it has patience and ambition, the storytelling gift here is already very impressive.