SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME

By Richard Bausch

HarperFlamingo. 214 pp. $24

Reviewed by Howard Frank Mosher

Almost nothing, short of a family catastrophe, frays our emotions and tests the elasticity of our relationships like a major move. In "Not Quite Final," the opening story of Richard Bausch's superb new collection of fiction, Someone to Watch Over Me, Melanie, her elderly husband, William, and their new baby move from Chicago to Virginia. In the process, their entire family, including Melanie's father, Jack Ballinger, seems about to come apart at the seams:

"The whole thing became an embarrassment that worsened as the sweltering morning wore on. Ballinger and his daughter had got the table and chairs in, the armoire, the clock. They were trying now to move the dresser, the largest of the pieces. It was almost as tall as Ballinger, who put his shoulder against the wood and strained, lifting it. The suntan lotion with which he had covered his face ran into his eyes, stinging. Melanie groaned, inching along the sidewalk . . .

" `Wait,' Melanie said. `Put it down.'

"Ballinger let it drop, and it made a bad cracking noise.

" `Daddy, it's no use bringing it in if we're going to break it into pieces on the way.'

" `Wish I could help,' William Coombs called with false cheer, from his seat in the hot shade.

" `You could've helped,' Melanie said. `You could have gone inside.' "

Of course, we've all been there; and it's impossible not to sympathize with everyone, as they bicker comically on into the hot Southern afternoon. One of the great strengths of Richard Bausch's realistic fiction is that even when we're laughing at his characters, we can't help liking them. At the same time, just when we're sure we know where they're headed, Bausch surprises us.

In "Riches," Bausch, the author of four other short story collections and eight novels, including Violence and Good Evening Mr. & Mrs. America & All the Ships at Sea, uses the same theme ironically to show how quickly life's abundance can go sour if we aren't careful what we wish for. When young Ben Mattison hits the jackpot, winning a whopping $16 million in the state lottery, every close and distant relative descends on him for a piece of the action. His father wants a new Lincoln. His brother has his eye on an expensive boat. His wife's grandmother is willing to settle for a BMW.

Everything comes unraveled at a hilarious family get-together on Thanksgiving. Holidays, Bausch well knows, are nearly as tough on families as moving days. There's a wonderfully Dickensian quality about this story, which ends with poor Mattison alone in a bar, at his wit's end, shelling out his last thousand bucks to a total stranger.

Like a number of other married couples in Someone to Watch Over Me, Ben and Sibyl Mattison are childless. But having children doesn't guarantee happiness -- at least for the children. In "Glass Meadow," two born practical jokers, Lionel and Myra, sail through their married life deceiving and manipulating everybody, including their two sons. In one tragicomic misadventure, fleeing their creditors like Mr. Micawber, Lionel actually sends his little boys into the woods to kill something to eat -- and the older brother tries to dispatch a cow with a jackknife! It's a story squarely in the darkly comic tradition of Flannery O'Connor's "Everything That Rises Must Converge."

Where O'Connor's characters are often obsessed with one or another brand of fanaticism, Bausch's -- like most of us -- strive to achieve happiness through love. Sometimes, when their love is gentle and giving, they're successful. In a delightful story called "Par," John Dallworth plays golf every day from boredom. When he meets Regina, who lives near the links, he undergoes a transformation. "Par" ends with a golfing scene, in the rain, that's as sweet as it is funny.

Of the 12 stories in Someone to Watch Over Me, two struck me as vignettes, with the potential to be expanded into fully developed, character-driven fiction. In "Self Knowledge," a teacher drinks herself into insensibility under highly unusual circumstances. I was curious to learn more about her, and about the small girl in "1951," which explores the confusions of a child made to feel guilty for her mother's death.

If, like me, you've found yourself wondering lately whether anyone is writing entertaining serious fiction in these strange, millennial days, take hope. Slip into the new fiction section of your local bookstore and read the first couple of pages of "Nobody in Hollywood," the final story in this collection. Chances are you'll walk out of the store with at least one purchase. "Nobody in Hollywood" is one of the best, and funniest, works of fiction, long or short, that I've read in years.

The premise sounds wild, and is. Ignatius, four feet nine inches tall, with "the sort of face that asked to be punched," visits his older brother Doke in Montana. Here, in a remote cabin in the mountains, Ignatius meets Doke's girlfriend, Samantha: a pathological liar who claims to be part Cherokee, to have had 300 lovers before she was 22, to have traveled with the Rolling Stones -- the list of fibs goes on and on. Years later, when Ignatius's abusive wife, Hildie, kicks him out of the house, whom does she take up with? I won't spoil it -- except to say that if you guessed Doke, try again.

Once more, I couldn't help thinking of Flannery O'Connor. What can you do, Bausch seems to be saying, when you can't do anything else? You can laugh. I laughed a great deal over Someone to Watch Over Me. It's a funny, wise and moving book from one our finest writers.

Howard Frank Mosher's sixth novel, "The Fall of the Year," will be published in September.