FICTION

PRIZE STORIES 1994: The O. Henry Awards edited and with an introduction by William Abrahams. (Doubleday: $25; 382 pp.) Similar to the film industry's Oscar, the O. Henry Awards for short stories are almost soothing in their predictability. Readers are treated to a collection of high-quality, main-stream, literary fiction that has plenty of sand with no grit, depth with no real price. That's not to say some of the work here is anything short of brilliant. Amy Bloom, Stuart Dybek and Elizabeth Graver in particular have written beautiful, gut-wrenching pieces about love and death. The first prize story, Alison Baker's "Better Be Ready 'Bout Half Past Eight," is a funny and oddly sweet look at how our gender defines us. And, if you're a Loorie Moore fan, her contribution, "Terrific Mother" will not disappoint.

Still, with the possible exception of "Labor," Katherine Hester's verbal collage of a love relationship shown by describing various parts of the man's body, none of these stories will surprise or challenge the reader. They're too polite. One may wish writers such as Dennis Cooper or Kathy Acker would come along to crash the party and misbehave.

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