No matter how clever, fine writing isn’t the only reason we read short stories. And if it’s hard to articulate exactly what makes a good story great, you know it when you read it. Barbara Kingsolver comes pretty close to pinpointing the ineffable qualities of such a tale in her recent collection of essays, Small Wonder: “If it can tell me something I didn’t already know, or maybe suspected but never framed quite that way, or never before had sock[ed] me so divinely in the solar plexus, that was a story worth the read.”

Against that measurement, Joseph Epstein’s Fabulous Small Jews comes up a tad short. Yes, the book is a finely crafted collection of tales that mostly live up to its author’s prodigious résumé. Epstein is a widely published essayist, the author of some 16 books (including last year’s bitterly funny Snobbery: The American Version); he served for a time as the editor of The American Scholar, the journal of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. He even teaches in Northwestern University’s highly regarded writing program.

But despite Epstein’s knack for well-paced exposition and characters who are positively ripe with cranky-old-guy charm, the stories themselves are pretty predictable. All 18 pieces collected here concern the lives of men, mostly Jews, most of whom are not fabulous in any way. Many stand near or at the end of their lives looking back. Some are lucky enough to stumble onto a second chance; others resign themselves to their regrettable states. In the collection’s most moving and consistent insight, almost all of these men seem baffled by the lives they’ve lived and the people they’ve become.

Middle-aged Barry Levine, for example, the protagonist of “Saturday Afternoon at the Zoo With Dad,” let his children drift out of his life after his ex-wife remarried and moved away to Los Angeles. When she returns to Chicago many years later for her 20-year high-school reunion, she calls him out of the blue and asks him to take the kids for a few hours. Before he can think of a good excuse, Levine hears himself “saying, in a dopey, unbelievable saccharine voice: ‘Sure, Saturday afternoon will be great. Where can I pick them up?’”

Levine opts for a time-tested family ritual—a trip to the zoo—but the get-together is awkward to the point of painful. On the drive back to their mother’s hotel, 10-year-old Jenny asks: “Do you love us?” Levine responds: “What a question. Of course I do.” But his children don’t believe him. Why should they? The father seems as surprised and disappointed as they are: “Going to the Granada as a boy to watch Cary Grant and Gary Cooper and Tyrone Power, he never thought he might one day become a father who would abandon his children.”

Throughout the collection, Epstein the narrator often writes in an old-fashioned, deadpan style, which helps balance the protagonists’ tendency to offer banal observations in annoying streams of consciousness. The latter technique, however, makes “Saturday Afternoon at the Zoo With Dad” touching—almost gratuitously so. Toward the end of the story, you may even start to suspect that there’s a nifty, Lifetime Original Movie-style reconciliation just a few paragraphs away. But Epstein never lets Levine off the hook, concluding the story with a genuinely heartbreaking tableau: The tale ends with Levine planning a night alone with a sandwich and a ball game on TV. Fabulous.

Seymour Hefferman, in “Postcards,” is similarly isolated. He’s a “formerly very smart” man who now likes to send caustic anonymous postcards under the pretense that it’s his duty “to tell people in the culture business when they are out of line—usually way out of line.” Hefferman’s quiet, solitary existence is disrupted when he accidentally attaches a label bearing his real name and address to one of his missives. Unfortunately for Hefferman, his “victim”—a feminist short-story writer—decides to respond. Ms. Andrea Rubin even goes so far as to locate his telephone number and leave a message suggesting a meeting.

The fact that Hefferman takes her up on the invitation seems to signal a possible change in the life of this passive-aggressive middle-aged man. Yet even after a surprisingly promising first encounter—not to mention a sightseeing drive and dinner date the next day—Hefferman can’t stop himself from destroying the one connection with another human being he’s made in years. When Rubin asks his opinion of her recent collection of short stories, he makes quick work of it, dismissing the volume as “tending toward the small, oblique insight.”

Reflexively cruel though he is, Hefferman, much like Levine, eventually earns a measure of self-awareness. The story concludes with a bitter epiphany, which arrives as if on cue: “Looking out the large windows of his apartment on the twenty-sixth floor to the dark immensity of Lake Michigan below, he suddenly knew, as he had never quite known until this moment, that he would live out his days alone.” Alas, this realization—wait for it—comes too late.

Fabulous Small Jews isn’t relentlessly grim; Epstein is fully capable of cranking out the occasional feel-good plot line. There’s the vaguely gratifying “Artie Glick in a Family Way,” for instance, which ends with the titular Glick firing the therapist who’s suspicious of his sudden happiness. Dr. Lieberman doesn’t seem to approve of Artie’s marriage at the age of 57 to his much younger girlfriend of five months. The girlfriend, in fact, is pregnant, leading Lieberman to suspect that Glick has unresolved father issues—after 13 years of twice-a-week therapy sessions. Nonetheless, despite Lieberman’s own poor relationship track record—he’s been married three times—the good doctor once confidently diagnosed Glick “in sexual relations, a passive paranoiac.”

Unlike many of Epstein’s other characters, though, Glick is at least willing to jump in the game and take what appears to be a long-shot chance at redemption. He dismisses his therapist with a letter both heartfelt and scathing, saying: “It feels like life is calling out to me, one last chance not to live under someone else’s tyranny (including, I hope you’ll forgive me for saying so, yours) but in a sweet chaos of my own making.”

“Dubinsky on the Loose” is another story of an unlikely second chance. This time, a 78-year-old widower finds a new companion in a local librarian. Manny Dubinsky spends most of his afternoons in the periodicals section reading the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Business Week, Forbes, and the Economist—anything, it seems, to keep his mind off the excruciating passing of time and the devastating loss of his wife, Grace.

One fateful day, Dubinsky leaves his wallet in the library—which, in a circuitous fashion, leads to lunch with Olivia Hampton. During the date, he learns that she’s a widow, and he’s delighted when they seem to have similar outlooks: “They rehearsed their common view that the world was growing nuttier and nuttier, dumber and dumber.” The conversation is interesting and wide-ranging, but, as it happens, the fact of his Jewishness and her blackness never quite comes up. It’s impossible to be incredulous, however. As with Glick in the earlier story, Epstein makes it clear that the character is choosing his own “sweet chaos”: The story concludes with Dubinsky wondering “how many days he was required to wait before calling” his new crush for dinner.

It’s a touching, funny moment, the kind of casually incisive detail that enlivens, say, a half-dozen of the book’s tales. There’s nothing wrong with the others, exactly. Most of them come complete with satisfying, Amen-inducing conclusions. But how many times can you read a story with the ol’ “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” moral neatly tied up for you at the end?

For Epstein’s fans, of course, the answer is obviously many, many times. Admirers of the “well-made” short story may well feel the same. Readers looking for a divine sock to the solar plexus, however, will need to look elsewhere. CP