BORN ON A TRAIN

By John McManus

Picador. 253 pp. Paperback, $14

The stories in this collection aren't pleasant. They won't make you "feel good." In only one does joy exist, and the characters who experience that joy are doomed.

As in an Escher print, John McManus's people are marginalized within margins within margins. They are poor; they live in trailers in the rural South. They are old and disgusting, or vulnerable and young. They are often dumb as planks, or innocent to the point of heartbreak, or both. They suffer from diabetes, too many crooked teeth, obesity, alcoholism, drug addiction, indigestion, acute fear, desperate sorrow. The majority of them are male homosexuals ("gay" would be an absolutely inappropriate word to describe them), guys trapped by their appetites in a society where such inclinations are sniggered at and held in thuggish contempt.

"Born on a Train," then, is not cheerful. But it is held together by the dogged determination of the author, who at once insists that this is what life is "like," and holds his vision together with a tightly controlled series of recurring images -- of drugs and dead leaves and sorry dogs and shadows. This is a shadow world, the "dark" side of America, and like a shadow you can't get rid of it. That shadow glides out from all the church suppers and movies in mini-malls and houses with lawns and middle-class heterosexuals tucked up in bed watching the 11 o'clock news. All you have to do to find that world is take a look.

In "Fetch," a man hopelessly in love with another handsome youth hides love letters from the youth's girlfriend in the vain hope that the object of his affection will fall in love with him instead, all against a background of heroin, pawnshops, cheap booze. Nothing will come from all this except for three broken hearts.

In "Natcher Mountain," men refer to themselves proudly and forlornly as "pure bred mountain stock," and then veer off into a course of murder, suicide, sex, mayhem, sorrow. This glorification of pure-blooded failure is taken up again in "The Earl of Crediton," a saga about a white-trash family's journey in a truck to the neighboring Kmart to exchange a pair of jeans (soiled over the years by grief and blood and grime, pierced by two bullet holes), because these jeans carry a "lifetime guarantee." But this is no "ordinary" family: The paterfamilias carries the title "The Earl of Crediton," and is, according to the family matriarch, "connected straight to the queen." More "pure bred mountain stock," perhaps one of the oldest families in America, these folks are descended from yeomen who stumbled years ago out of steerage onto our green shores only to mutter, "Where's the bar?"

These are people stolen from and ill-used in every way. In "Old Timers' Day," a real old-timer's acreage is taken by the government and turned into a national park, a place to throw "Old Time Day" for yahoo tourists. In "Eastbound," two sad and stupid old ladies end their days on the shoulder of a freeway overpass -- a freeway that has been built, in part, across their family's land.

But the real unfortunates here are men who love each other. They're taunted and jeered at by their fathers and brothers and drunken friends and foes. Policemen and passersby alike sneer at them. They see hatred reflected in the eyes of all who recognize them for "what they are," whatever that may be. In "A Flock of Bluebirds," one of the most hellish stories here, four of life's losers -- a young single mother, an elderly great-aunt and two brothers, 15 and 13 years old -- spend 30 awful days in a beachfront cottage on the Gulf of Mexico, hoping against hope for something like a good time. The young mother is dizzy with failure and loneliness; the old lady remembers a (perhaps fictional) past filled with vulgar heterosexual frolic. The older boy copes with his own anguish by taunting his younger brother, whom he (accurately) tabs as "queer." And in "Dog's Egg," a poor little boy is taunted by his crazy, speed-freak dad, who labels everyone a sissy, fag or queer -- his son, of course, and even the family dog.

Only in "Cowrie" are two men, far away in New Zealand, allowed the opportunity to love each other without complication, to be themselves. But they, too, will fall into the hands of sub-literate heterosexual savages. That's the way the world is, the author insists. The real world is to be found in shadow. Maybe some of us can't be blamed if, walking alone, in a moonlit night, we avoid, at all costs, looking behind us.