SIGNS OF DEVOTION: Stories by Maxine Chernoff (Simon & Schuster: $18; 222 pp.) Maxine Chernoff doesn't sneak up. No time. She jumps into a story with dispatch and dexterity; gets her characters just right before you've been properly introduced; spins and shapes them, and moves on, leaving you to catch up. Like Carl Lewis out of the starting blocks, Chernoff sets the pace with the first paragraph, the first sentence : "It isn't right for a woman with one breast, a woman anyone would call matronly, to go on vacation, meet a man and never come home." Or: "Barry and Joan made a perfect olfactory pair. He smelled nothing, she everything." How about: "Cal Weathers liked Oleg Lum because of his name. Nothing else recommended the earnest Russian who shucked oysters next to Cal at The Shell." Or: " 'You're not my friend,' I hear myself saying, and regret it already. 'Of course not. I'm your sister.' "

These are people you know, or wish you did, or are glad you don't. There's a man on vacation who keeps a list of what he doesn't get to see; a 12-year-old girl befriending a lesbian gas-station attendant; a man, 41, dating a woman of 20 and making reference to "Watergate, dirty tricks." "I haven't heard of them. I like the Talking Heads."A former group therapist for pet loss going with a Polish doctor and her philandering husband to see a "Weeping Virgin" statue none of them believes in.

Nothing happens, really, but once you've started you're in thrall to a writer who can bring to life even a coffee-shop booth "where initials had been carved over initials, a palimpsest of mundane meals"--a clever writer who knows how to ration her cleverness, the way the very good ones do.

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