DYING LIGHT

And Other Stories

By Donald Hays

MacAdam/Cage. 261 pp. $23

In his two novels, both published in the 1980s, the Arkansas-based writer Donald Hays came off as a somewhat crabby romantic, a dirty Southern hedonist with a chip on his shoulder. He divides the world between rebels and fools: outlaws who live on the edge and the dull, obedient, go-along-to-get-along saps who don't. His narrators -- ex-convict Hog Durham in The Dixie Association and the wily anarchist Samuel Langhorne Maledon in The Hangman's Children -- are rawboned, redneck pagans born to paddle upstream against a tide of straight, repressive, churchgoing, rule-oriented do-gooders. The books are broad, braying comedies, never more energetic than when they wallow in contempt for the hypocritical masses, those squares who substitute faith for reason and don't have the guts to live by their wits.

In Hays's debut collection of stories -- his first book of fiction in 16 years -- there are no heroes who do as they wish, consequences be damned. Instead, there are only suck-ups and sellouts, losers saddled with bad marriages and failed ambitions, mourning lost time. Sometimes they are measuring out the future in days; the end is near and there is everything to rage against. Unfortunately, Hays does not approach these doleful lives with the gracefulness or generosity of a William Trevor or a John Cheever. His people are caught in a merciless universe where they don't do much more than mope, and the only balm for their unfortunate fates is his own smug, self-righteous pity.

As is sometimes the case with writers who fancy themselves tough and unsentimental, Hays doesn't boil life down to its essence so much as he boils the essence away, leaving him only to mutter dull, perfunctory eulogies over the dregs. In "The Rites of Love" a woman deals with the loss of her son by rekindling her romance with her first love, a former football star she deserted 20 years ago after he became paralyzed. Bereavement has killed her faith in God, which for Hays means that she has come to her senses: "There is only the truth. Horror is horror. God is either an absence or an assassin." This note will be echoed many times, as Hays generally sees despair as a sign of maturity and faith as a symptom of feeblemindedness.

The elderly protagonist in "Salvage" also has a dying partner and is singing some first-love blues of his own. He seems to have only just recently realized that his nearly 60-year marriage is a sham and that life went to hell when his true love (a none-too-bright girl who prayed often) married someone else. He yearns to speak the truth to his "dim, sweet," Southern Baptist daughter: "He wants to tell her that all of them, him included, him especially, have wasted their goddamn little chickenshit lives."

He isn't the only one whose golden years have left him sour. McMahon, in the title story, is a dying man whose withering, cancer-ridden husk inspires the artistic ambitions of his son, whose marriage is falling apart. "Piece of wisdom," McMahon says to his daughter-in-law. "Only one I got to pass on to you. You fall in love and then sooner or later you're going to find out it's to the wrong woman -- or man, in your case. Question is, what do you do then?"

It's a crossroad most of these characters reach, but Hays skimps on credibility and empathy. In "Ackerman in Eden," a deranged poetry professor with a Wallace Stevens fixation is under the delusion that he and his black girlfriend, both trying to get out of a mental ward, are fleeing Iraq. We never get a grip on just why the professor lost his mind to begin with, except that he thinks he's a failure, which we know only because Hays -- who tends to pass judgment on his characters before they get a chance to make their case -- suddenly announces: "He is a joke of a man who thinks he is a poet." In "Orphans," a dentist finds God and gives up his practice to work with a shady Russian orphanage. For his wife, the story's narrator, this mid-life crisis can mean only one thing: "Instead of getting a mistress and a Miata, Richard began getting right with God. Now he's gone gah-gah over the idea of the life of service." Richard doesn't want life, she says: "He just wants not to die," which covers most of the characters Hays creates.

Occasionally, a story will wrest free of Hays's heavy grip and take an unexpected turn. The best, "The Rapist," is about an art teacher who becomes obsessed with painting the man she believes attacked her, leading to a surprising confrontation at the end that forces you to rethink the story.

Sexual vengeance gone awry is the undercurrent of several stories, some of which work better than others. In "Redemption," a resentful son ruins the second marriage of his deadbeat dad, only to wind up punishing himself in the process. "Why He Did It" is a goofy paranoid's nightmare where a lithium-headed school administrator takes extraordinary measures to disrupt the budding romance between his son and his stepdaughter.

There's also "Material," a curiously objective, nuanced story about a creative writing teacher whose life falls apart after his affair with a brilliant student. The teacher gives her some insightful wisdom about the craft of fiction: "He told her that we tend to spend the early years of our adulthood categorizing people. After that, we begin noticing all the exceptions. Then we see that everyone is an exception."

It's the kind of advice Hays himself could stand to take more often. *

Rodney Welch frequently reviews books for the Columbia, S.C., Free Times.