Erika Krouse, . . Scribner, $22 (208pp) ISBN 978-0-7432-0244-2

"Cliff, our relationship has no punch line," says one of the protagonists of the 13 stories in this witty, astringent debut collection. "Yet," he replies. Like the sly jab of an elbow, Krouse's wit startles her readers into sympathizing with the characters—geographically and emotionally nomadic women and the men they love and despise—of her downbeat tales. Heroin addict Cliff meets his girlfriend, in "Drugs and You," when she hits him while driving in Santa Fe. The female protagonist of "Mercy," a battered wife who has escaped from her husband, finds herself sliding into a relationship with her New York landlord, the cook at an unconventional Chinese restaurant. In "Momentum," Irene's live-in boyfriend decides he wants to leave her—or maybe not—and Irene cries so much her eyes no longer swell up: "she could now cry often and gracefully." In "Impersonator," one of the most powerful stories and one of the few with a hopeful ending, two feisty women who have dated the same excuse for a man eventually come to the logical conclusion that they were meant for each other. In "Too Big to Float," a young woman uses her fear of flying as a way to avoid what could be a meaningful romance with a handsome pilot. Though it sometimes seems as if each character dispenses the same bitter humor, Krouse's dialogue is crisp, with many of the barrage of one-liners hitting their targets dead-on. Each tale is prefaced by a quote from Mae West, regarded by some as the original Liberated Woman, but these stories need no props. Krouse is in the same league as Mary Gaitskill and Lorrie Moore, her fiction wise to the bravado required of Liberated Women through the ages. (May)