THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WOMEN AND MEN

Stories

By Bret Lott

Random House. 188 pp. $23.95

Bret Lott is the perfect miniaturist for a certain American generation. His first novel, "The Man Who Owned Vermont" (1987), contains a passage about a forlorn white guy making a sandwich, an image that, once you've read it, you'll never forget. At his best, Lott holds a compact mirror up to us: the loud guy embarrassing his family at a soccer game, the impassioned, embittered arguments of a married couple who can't remember why or how their argument started. He is the master of the stalled car, the flat tire, the car lost in the parking lot, the snow coming down like crazy when you've lost your winter gloves. He also -- perhaps because of his obvious vulnerability -- may hold the record for getting bad reviews. "Gosh!" someone in publishing said to me the other day, "You've got to wonder sometimes how he has the nerve to go on. He's a wonderful writer, though."

If not for Bret Lott, who would tell us about the RC Cola salesmen, the food brokers, the small-time insurance agents, the couples who are about six steps away from being homeless, if they stop to think about it, except that they don't have the time to stop and think about it? (And maybe that's the real line that divides the classes in America -- the time or place when you don't have to agonize about paying this month's bills. Not whether your home is big or small, or your yacht or motor home large or pitiful. Just the moment when you sit down to pay the bills and don't break out in a wretched sweat.) Lott's characters are almost always in a sweat, or close to it. They live on the margin, as, in some sense, we all do, but they can't or don't deny it. They don't aspire to contribute great things to civilization: Their contribution is getting up in the morning, getting the kids off to school, getting back home in time for dinner -- assuming there's dinner to be put on the table.

"The Difference Between Women and Men" is a collection of 16 short stories, 15 of them almost perfect in my opinion, with one lemon -- again, that's just my opinion. Among the winners is "Family," in which a poor, sad, desperate couple carry on with their endless bickering, only to find that their children have drastically shrunk in size and gone to live in one of those plastic igloo things stuck out in a shed in their back yard. The author is merciless to each of his characters here. The parents aren't awful, just hopeless, helpless and ignorant. They've filled their lives with useless junk: a pool, lawn chairs, mower, a plethora of sludge stored in that stupid shed. The kids' only weapons against them are shrinkage and scorn, and, worst of all, doing a spot-on imitation of their parents. (In this collection, one way or another, children are always reproaching their parents, mostly by looking them dead in the eye.) This collection is best read in conjunction with Lott's most recent book, a memoir of the writing life called "Before We Get Started." Like many mid-list writers, for most of his life Lott had more integrity to show for his work than money. Then Oprah picked up one of his out-of-print books for her reading club, and he was thrust into wealth and prominence that didn't jibe with his poor-but-pure outlook on life and literature. That 15 minutes of fame added to his pocketbook but messed with (as he wrote in his memoir) his creativity and sense of self.

Now come these stories. "Nostalgia" -- which he wrote in his memoir he thinks of as his "first" -- is about two bratty little brothers who live in paradise but don't have the sense to know it. They ride in the back of their folks' pickup truck to go to the beach and eat cold fried chicken; at home one night they gather up a big bag of tomatoes from their dad's garden and pelt their poor babysitter into near extinction. Then the story takes an unexpected turn, but it's the tomatoes and the chicken that hold the tale together -- the perfection of the ordinary.

In "Somebody Else," a couple take turns telling each other "I love you," with different permutations. In "A Way Through This," an adulterous husband and his vengeful wife have the same kind of argument. In the title story, "The Difference Between Women and Men," a wife is so outraged by what her husband has just told her (we never find out what it is), that she finds the superhuman strength to move an enormous armoire belonging to him out of their shared room.

There's a fair amount of what might be called "magic realism" in these stories, although I'm sure the author would cringe from the term. People are always forgetting the names of people they're married to, or thinking they're the couple out in the parking lot instead of the couple in the upstairs room. In "Halo," some poor man searching for his lost car loses himself entirely when the law of gravity is mysteriously repealed. "We are so incredibly anonymous and unimportant!" the author seems to be saying. And yet, we -- and our little families -- are all we've got.

I know it's a matter of personal taste, but Lott seems best to me when he sticks to the indisputably real. In "The Issue of Money," a young working couple and their baby become so tormented by the heat in their cramped apartment that they check into a cheap motel for a few nights, except they can't afford it. Their moods swing precipitously: They are on the edge, they know it, but they can't begin to know what's ahead. Most of us have been at that metaphorical place, in one way or another. It's a beautiful story.

The lemon here is "Rose," set in post-Civil War times with all sorts of Gothic stuff that you can see coming a mile away. But goodness! Why not give the guy a break! Fifteen out of 16 should be more than enough for the most persnickety reader. These are authentic American scenarios, the ones we try to ignore but they're there all right -- just waiting for us to lose our jobs and run out of credit.