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If David Lynch wrote some short stories that were punctuated by a third-grader with ADD and edited by the Coen Brothers, the resulting stew would be the oddball fiction of Tom Paine. A creative-writing guru at Middlebury College—and a frequent contributor to the New Yorker and Playboy—Charlotte, Vt.,’s Paine is a daring original. His new collection, Scar Vegas and Other Stories, pulls no punches in poking around the sweat-stained universe of life’s down-and-outers. But whereas Thom Jones—another adept chronicler of the have-nots—rarely lets up on the bleakness, Paine is a comedian at heart. His characters might not laugh at their pitiful predicaments, but we sure do. In the title tale, a sad-sack ex-con heads to Sin City for his sister’s wedding. But nothing—now, then, ever—goes right for the bumbling Johnny Loop: “My sister Fruit has never played the slots and I buy her a bucket of quarters. In prison I made about a quarter an hour and she has a bucket of long hours in her hand. Fruit skips down between the machines in her wedding dress. I do not like to gamble and done Vegas too many times. I am not lucky. Some people are lucky. The big finger in the sky is pointed at them. The big finger in the sky never so much as took the time to poke me in the eye.” Paine reads from and signs copies of Scar Vegas at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 17, at Chapters, 1512 K St. NW. Free. (202) 347-5495. (Sean Daly)