``I coulda married Joe Morgan, who owns three Tastee Freezes,'' a wife tells her husband--not unkindly--in Hoffman's third collection (after By Land, By Sea, 1988). It's just this sort of low ambition that runs like a fault line through these competent but commonplace stories. ``Home'' is the mid-South, by turns genteel, grotesque and seedy. Hoffman's range is broad, but the track is well worn: Feisty widows drink ``tonic'' and bemoan their faded beauty; horses are noble and bird dogs soft of mouth; great-great-grandaddy was a Confederate colonel and a US senator. At their best, these stories relate with great tenderness the small kindnesses people share: Celeste, the black maid in ``Coals,'' antagonizes but ultimately comforts her grieving white employer; the retired and embittered preacher in ``Sweet Armageddon'' prays for doomsday but is solicitous toward his wife, regretful of the poverty to which his principled stubbornness has reduced them. At their worst, the pre-fab familiarity of character and situation dulls the intended effect. ``Abide With Me,'' meant to be a raucous tall tale about a man who sees God and raises a statue in tribute, degenerates instead into a catalogue of tired bumpkin caricatures and cute southern colloquialisms. Like the anglophile fox hunter in ``Points,'' for whom the chase is ``choosing to reach back into the best epochs the centuries had to offer, as well as a statement of where one stood in respect to a world becoming increasingly common, disordered, and hateful,'' many of these characters--aging, fighting irrelevance, confronted with evidence of their own deterioration as well as that of society--seek refuge from the inhospitable present in the past. In the best southern literary tradition, they are more often haunted than comforted by their heritage. Well-crafted, but oh so familiar.