HENRY JAMES is the progenitor of much that is good in our contemporary fiction, and it is only fair that he take the blame for one of its failings. In his introduction to the New York edition of Daisy Miller, James reminisced about the terrible difficulties he encountered writing about American life from "the very moderate altitude of Twenty-Fifth Street," where he found himself, during the daylight hours, "alone... with the music-masters and French pastrycooks, the ladies and children." James wanted to write about his native country, but found that "nineteen-twentieths of it, or in other words the huge organized mystery of the consummately, the supremely applied money-passion, were inexorably closed" to him.

James handled the problem by hopping a steamer; but too many of today's writers do is by simply leaving out of their fiction what their characters do during the day, or by having them do nothing at all. For the "supremely applied money-passion" is, after all, the work that most of us do to survive; and work -- the search for it, lack of it, pride in it, and alienation from it -- is probably the most important single element in American history and culture.

In fact, most of us work, not only because we have to but because we want to -- because we enjoy it or because we are ashamed to be idle or simply because life is too long to do anything else. John Sayles, for example, is described by his publisher as "a jack of all kinds of blue-collar trades." He is also, probably not coincidentally, one of our most exciting and accomplished young writers. His last novel, Union Dues, featured moving portraits of Americans at their jobs: miners at the coal face, day-laborers folding boxes, policemen enduring the tedium of a graveyard shift. The Anarchists' Convention a collection of 15 stories, is also peopled by characters who leave the "music-masters" behind every morning; dishwashers, dog-breeders, cowboys, truck drivers, anthropologists in the field. Work does not just fill their time; it shapes their consciousness and gives form to their lives. In "The Cabinetmaker," the title character muses about his intended seduction of a rich and foolish female client:

It always reminded him of planing rough wood. You take your time, you don't push. Each thin layer would slice away clean, the grain exposed, the wood taking shape. Don't push. Let the tool do the work.

Besides his knowledge of the world below 25th Street, Sayles has an unerring ear for American speech, for what James scorned as "the riot of the vulgar tongue." His characters, whether they are illegal aliens in California or office temps in Boston, speak with individuality and vividness. My favorite speaker in the book is the Hispanic wino of "Golden State," whose mind runs riot at the mention of a familiar name:

"You know Misser Carey Misser Carey, he ron a boosher shop? Many many meats ohyesohyes.... He got steaks an bacongs an sosage an rose biff an... Pork shop an chickens an libber an --"

Keen powers of observation, of course, can serve as a crutch, leading the writer to produce journalistic fiction, the rendering of life without the leaven of imagination and the structure of art. "Golden State" suffers from this flaw, as do other stories in the book -- "Breed," about an Indian funeral in the Dakotas, and "Children of the Silver Screen," about the last day of a repertory cinema going porno.

Still others -- the title story, and "Fission." an account of life in a midwestern bomb-shelter -- are too satircial, too obviously pointed, to work as fiction. But the best stories bring together Sayles' eye, ear, and point of view to present a powerful view of America in the late '70s -- a land of illegal aliens, Vietnamese refugees, sexually precocious teenagers, aging leftists and angry, restless women. At his best, Sayles has a tremendous gift for characterization -- for rendering fictional people who are seen for themselves, without caricature but also without sentiment.

Two of the book's best stories -- "Schiffman's Ape," about a pair of married anthropologists, and "Bad Dogs," about the sexual initiation of a high-school basketball star -- present a view of human sexuality that suggests there is little difference between us and animals in this regard -- that all our suffering and posturing in the name of love may be no more meaningful than the pluming and preening of our fellow-mammals during their own mating seasons. It is a measure of the compassion with which Sayles writes that this vision is neither depressing nor glib, but oddly reassuring. Such is the power of an artist who sees us as we are, at work and play.