cover image Herb's Pajamas

Herb's Pajamas

Abigail Thomas. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $17.95 (210pp) ISBN 978-1-56512-189-8

The four lonely Upper West Siders who inhabit this muted but moving collection of 18 related short stories have each lost something and want it back. Middle-aged Walter's wife has left him, and he can't come to terms with her desire merely to be his friend. Edith, ""a trembly maiden of 52"" who has never seen a man naked, yearns to connect but doesn't know how, while her neighbor, the widowed, aging Belle, finds her own lover, ""the sweetest man who ever lived,"" dead in the kitchen and must dispose of his body. The most appealing character is the protagonist of ""Bunny's Sister,"" a gently drawn account of a 14-year-old's journey to find her runaway sibling, who disappeared one day after announcing: ""I'm smoke."" Along the way, we gradually come to understand that Bunny has known all along how her journey will end, and that makes her sadness sharper for the reader. Although the carefully chronicled minor events that make up these stories don't always amount to much on their own, Thomas (An Actual Life) has a way with details that makes for endings as bittersweet as her beginnings. (Mar.)