BROWNSVILLE

By Oscar Casares

Little, Brown. 191 pp. $13.95 It's easy to think up learned, conventional reasons why any given book is awful, or should never have been published. But literary merit is hard to measure. One calibration, of course, is "greatness." Is the book a tad unreadable? Six hundred pages long? About quantum physics? Written by a self-defined "great" novelist? Well, then, it must be great, and even if we have to plow through it, it must be good for us in some way.

But there are other, smaller surprises that hide behind unpromising titles like "Brownsville," with noncommittal jackets (this one carries a monkey's tail against a white background). In this case, there are just nine short stories. No, not like J.D. Salinger's famous "Nine"; these aren't "great" in any way. These are more like puppies, clumsy sometimes, shamelessly endearing. Oscar Casares is the absolute last degree in the world away from a Jonathan Franzen, or even a Richard Price. Casares could be a little bit like Nick Hornby, though. Their shared authorial trick is to knock the reader silly with sheer sweetness.

These tales are set in Brownsville, on the Tex-Mex border, a stone's throw from the Gulf. The temptation might be to compare Casares to other "ethnic" writers like Dagoberto Gilb ("Woodcuts of Women") or Denise Chavez ("Loving Pedro Infante"), but "Brownsville" has more to do with class than nationality, resembling early Steinbeck work more than anything else: Casares deals with work and its dignity, poverty and its challenges, the narrowness of human existence under constant assault by ingenious women and men.

Nine stories, then, divided by themes into thirds. The first section, "I Thought You and Me Were Friends," addresses the limitations and betrayals implicit in all human relationships. (Doesn't that make you itch to go out and buy the book? But these tales are far too tender to paraphrase adequately.) An 11-year-old in his first job finds himself working for a world-class jerk. An obsessive broods over a hammer his neighbor has borrowed and never returned. (Yes, I know that one has been written before, but not by this author, and it's so old a lot of young people may not have read it yet.) And a young guy, mourning the loss of his best friend, has a strange encounter with a dead monkey.

The mournful second part here, "They Say He Was Lost," deals with decent men at the end of their respective ropes: An elderly laborer struggles to regain his religious faith after a lifetime of misfortune; a 24-year-old divorced father struggles to come to terms with his son's lameness and his own cluelessness. And a hard-working husband is driven to commit a series of crimes against a dog that is driving him batty.

So far, toil and honesty have been the order of the day -- lawns mowed, screens mended, oil changed in the family car; everything poor, yes, but beautifully shipshape.

Part 3, "Don't Believe Anything He Tells You," conjures trickster heroes and heroines: a conniving relative who can sell refrigerators to Eskimos and funeral plots to couples still in their twenties. Or the fantastically beautiful wife next door, who looks like butter wouldn't melt in her mouth, but she's a scoundrel through and through. Or the 68-year-old widow-granny who becomes a bowling champ in later life and plots revenge against a mannerless homeboy who steals her ball.

Writing about people in the working class if you've had a good education and moved "up" can be tricky. It's all too easy to condescend to your characters. But the author exercises tremendous discipline here. He absolutely won't let himself do that. The little kid who learns that mankind can be awful, the lost guy scared out of his wits by the death of his friend, the poor young father trying to do the "right" things for his crippled kid, all possess tremendous dignity. And the crafty granny, the cunning wife next door, simply shine.

No, "Brownsville" isn't great. It's only 191 pages, and about ordinary people. It's marvelous, though.