Big Cats

By Holiday Reinhorn

(Free Press, 224 pages, $14.95)

Social workers would have a diagnostic field day with Holiday Reinhorn's debut collection, Big Cats. Set in California and Oregon, these stories feature more misfits than a school bus full of adults. In "Get Away from Me David," an alcoholic bank manager begins to see visions of his dead wife; "My Name" features a Vietnam vet who starts a relationship with a catatonic woman. Sad to say, these are the lucky ones.

Unlike David Foster Wallace, who cannot help but sneer at the loners he brings to life, Reinhorn treats her characters with fairness and dignity. Their problems are not extraordinary, just their inability to be unbothered by them. What exactly is appropriate about turning a dead child's room into a shrine, wonders the grieving mother in "Good to Hear You."

Not all of Reinhorn's stories find the right balance between humor and cynicism, and a few do a downright belly flop in the process. But when she is on-which is most of the time-Reinhorn can spin a tale so strange and singular it has its own magnetic warble. The title story is a perfect riff on the noxious smell of teen spirit. And "Get Away from Me David" is the strangest thing to appear between two covers since George Saunders' Civilwarland in Bad Decline.

So readers beware: Approach these stories with a squinty eye and an open heart, but don't expect to be unaffected. Cart them onto TriMet and you might resemble one of its characters: a person sitting in public laughing at something imaginary.

Reinhorn will read at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Thursday, July 21. Free.