The local nature of their canny, comic tonalities, the old-timey subtitle, and the fact that all the action takes place before 1942 might lead browsers to take these Berry stories as merely quaint. That would be a mistake. In fact, like Isaac Bashevis Singer, Berry has been expanding by contraction, husbanding by close focus--in Berry's case, on the familiar demesne of Port William, Ky. (Fidelity, 1992, etc.). The tales here all revolve around the equable, lanky figure of farmer Tol Proudfoot and his schoolteacher wife, Miss Minnie. Tol-- negligent of dress, gregarious, hungry, a preternaturally economical worker and doer--is less a fascinating character in and of himself than he is an utterly engaged, interlocking piece of humankind, at home in the world and among his fellow dwellers. In the Depression-era setting of ``The Solemn Boy,'' Tol invites a hobo-ing father and son inside for a meal, a small, good-humored act that brings disproportionate emotional nourishment. His apprehension of horse-consciousness in ``A Half-Pint of Old Darling'' (``startled by the steam clouds of his breath...he enjoyed the notion that he was in danger of being run over by the buggy rolling behind him'') shapes Tol's feelings about his first long car trip in the subsequent ``Nearly to The Fair,'' a funny, steady exercise in the virtues of getting nowhere too fast, as well as a recommendation for occasionally being helplessly, freely lost. The long title story, which closes the collection, is a masterpiece about a group of men following into the woods over a whole day and night a young neighbor (``at once their fear, their quarry, and their leader'') who has gone out of his head and bears a shotgun with which he may kill either himself or them. The tale clarifies Berry's direction, as he moves way beyond nostalgia toward an immersion in other lives that expresses itself as a sense of intimate apartness--a willingness to follow his characters, but not necessarily to change them. Poetry nestled inside prose: startlingly and classically moving.