By Thea Astley

Putnam. 175 pp. $19.95

Keith Leverson, having fallen off several job ladders and lost a leg in an automobile accident years before, is a cynical failure. A self-described "motelier" in an out-of-the-way corner of Australia, he watches cartoons on television as he settles into the sinkhole of the second rate.

Also, in common with many cynics and those who don't measure up, he is a sharp-eyed witness of the passing parade. This makes him the perfect constant for Thea Astley's fiercely funny, bizarre and precisely observed tales of small-town shenanigans in Northern Australia.

The scene is populated "with people who feel they've been forgotten by the rest of the country -- and don't really care," an environment that clearly delights Astley. We come to share her delight. Speaking often through Leverson's voice, the author gently savages her characters and their foibles, puncturing their obsessions and belittling their pretensions as they struggle to fit in.

The Reformation suddenly comes to Queensland in "The Curate Breaker." The worldly Catholic Father Rassini "believed strongly in the superiority of the clergy, the philosophic inferiority of all laymen, and the nonexistence of women except in some cloudily defined area known as auxiliary where he believed them to be tea-makers for God." His adversary, and equal in pomposity, is the Anglican curate, Canon Morrow, whose faith in God is exceeded only by his hatred for all things Catholic.

These petty men of the cloth clash over a young refugee from papistry who flees the father's religious instruction class at the local high school in favor of Canon Morrow's. The terms of the battle are familiar, but the result, in Astley's sure hand, is fresh and startling with, as in many of the stories, a final, shocking touch of ugliness thrown in.

Clarice, in "A Northern Belle," ages quietly in her isolation, progressing through her life from "porky" childhood through a faintly rebellious adolescence and blossoming youth to a kind of vaguely dissatisfied and solitary maturity.

People drift about the periphery of this life but don't get very far into it. Clarice is not one to share things -- either much of herself or intimate details of anyone else; "{t}he troubles of others found in her a grotesque response of incomprehension." And so it continues until, nearing the end, she rebels, suddenly, violently -- and alone.

Such surprising deviations from their established patterns startle many of Astley's protagonists. Sadie Klein is also a solitary and apparently independent woman, burdened with an unacknowledged emptiness "that was always charged overweight." In "Ladies Need Only Apply," she gets into a situation of huge sexual and emotional tension that is resolved only when she willingly and dangerously humiliates herself.

In "Petals From Blown Roses ..." Brain spends his years scheming grand schemes and bungling suicide attempts. All the while, behind his "stupid failed eyes" and his stupid failed life lurks a singing voice of such depth and such purity that it transcends all his pettiness. But Brain is too mired in the shallows to notice the depths, and is destined to wallow listlessly on, forever unaware that his only salvation from triviality lies not in his schemes but in his self.

"I'm very interested in oddballs," Astley said in a recent interview, and she has assembled a fine collection in these stories, all on the lookout for a place in the cosmos to call their own. From Moth, a hippy-dippy dropout who travels around with "a tiny boy called Wait-a-while whose parenthood she seemed vague about" to Mr. Pasmore who leads guests on a wild chase after fruit in the title story and the stolid Mrs. Waterman who writes "glazed" under "eye color" on her passport, most of her folk are at least a little off center. All of them are wandering around in futile search of that center.

The author of numerous novels in her native Australia, several of which -- including the much praised "Reaching Tin River" -- have been published here, Astley is also a three-time winner of the prestigious Australian Miles Franklin Award and a recent recipient of the Patrick White Award for lifetime achievement in literature. "Hunting the Wild Pineapple" is, in fact, an earlier work, from 1979, but only now released in this country.

In it, she displays a delicate hand for the precise detail and a wondrous eye for the shadings of human color, both realized in a prose that is almost poetic in its measure and intensity. Perhaps at times the cynicism and deep ironies are too intense, verging on contempt, but most of this fine collection reads exactly right.

The reviewer writes frequently about contemporary fiction.