RED WOLF, RED WOLF By W.P. Kinsella Southern Methodist University Press 182 pp. $17.50; paperback, $8.95

DISTANT FRIENDS By Greg Johnson Ontario Review Press/Braziller. 201 pp. $17.95

WHEN the noted English fiction-writer Angus Wilson turned away from the short story, the form in which he had first made his reputation, he cited his impatience with the formula of a "snap ending echoing the ironic title." The two collections under review, one by a Canadian veteran and the other by an American newcomer, bear witness that one man's snap is another's crash, whirr, or even silent fade to black.

The Canadian, W.P. Kinsella, is best-known for baseball stories, especially his novel "The Iowa Baseball Confederacy" and his story about Shoeless Joe Jackson that grew into a novel and emerged from Hollywood as the movie "Field of Dreams." Red Wolf, Red Wolf, which gathers a baker's dozen of his tales, showcases the multiplicity of endings available to an astute practitioner.

In "Billy in Trinidad" the Billy in question is surnamed Bonney, aka The Kid. Rather than harp on the lad's perverse glamour or his blank indifference to human life, Kinsella depicts him at play -- fielding grounders in the southern Colorado town of the story's title, as in real life he may have done. It's not a fancy story, and its leisurely pace may not jibe with one's preconceptions of a suitable tempo for the plug-ugly protagonist. But it offers two distinct pleasures. One is the plummeting of the first-person narrator's stock after he takes a bullet while inside a saloon. "I found out very quickly," he notes drily, "that a wounded man is a liability to any business. . ." The second is the vivid image on which the story fades out -- of Billy in the infield, "still a few hundred days short of his destiny, where, in a rooming house in Santa Fe, a bullet from Pat Garrett's gun would end his young life. Shadows blocked out his facial features, between the V of his spread legs the horizon flamed. I hit the ball."

Another story, "For Zoltan, Who Sings," sports an aural ending. Confined to a madhouse, the moderately disturbed narrator befriends the solidly crazy Zoltan, who indeed sings -- every night, "not {in} English," a nurse explains, "maybe not {in} any language." Urged by the narrator, Zoltan rejoins the human race at least to the degree of following along "like a bad echo" in an a cappella version of "Sweet Betsy from Pike." When last seen, the two singers are arm-in-arm, taking a bow before an audience of their peers "as the applause, like the beating of bird wings, rises and envelops us."

It's hard to talk endings without spoiling the story-lines they round off. So I'll only note that in one case, "Driving Patterns," Kinsella redeems an otherwise humdrum bagatelle with a deft last line that Wilson might envy and that the finest story of all, "Oh, Marley," ends and begins with consummate artistry.

Kinsella's prose, however, is uneven. One story, "Evangeline's Mother," comes riddled with bad grammar ("He rented an apartment for he and Rosalie," "neither of them were football fans"). Another, "Mother Tucker's Yellow Duck," which Kinsella calls "my favorite" in his introduction, suffers from the narrator's grating habit of apostrophizing Glorianna (the old flame to whom the plaintive tale is addressed) in roughly every other paragraph.

No such lapses mar Distant Friends, the polished first book by Greg Johnson, a young Georgian who writes precisely and dramatically, with an ear cocked for the momentum that can build up within the borders of a single sentence. "Advanced age makes self-pity even harder to bear," comments the first-person narrator of "Wintering," "because no one minds it." The story ends in an unresolved tumult, which is all the more striking because the narrator, though engulfed in events, keeps talking till the author's dash cuts him off in mid-remark.

Johnson's most memorable stories center on outsiders: the elderly widower of "Wintering," the transexual in "Metamorphosis," the ageing "gypsy child of the Sixties" in the title story. Unlike the other two, the latter arrives at a moment of recognition that may help him overcome his limitation -- in this case, a longstanding emotional detachment that is starting to fray his friends' nerves.

Johnson's most powerful story is also his longest: "Passion Play," about a guilt-ridden middle-aged man who can never satisfy his high standards for protecting his sister from the tragedies lying in wait for the retarded. It, too, ends unorthodoxly, with a renunciation of duty that leaves the sister imperilled. But it's the flashback drama of the story's title that sticks uppermost in mind: a literal passion play staged in a Catholic church and starring the hapless sister, garishly made-up by her giggling classmates, as the Virgin Mary. The incident occupies four pages about halfway through the story -- a dazzlingly wrenching episode that spreads out in either direction to suffuse the whole piece with the menace of childhood cruelty. With a narrative midsection like that, a writer hardly has to bother himself with the niceties of his ending. Dennis Drabelle is a Washington writer and editor.