Nine "Moral Problems" structure this wonderful book; each is a vignette or a short-short story. In "The Law of Miracles" (University of Massachusetts Press, 160 pages, $19.95), Minnesota writer Gregory Blake Smith pairs eight of the brief pieces with longer stories. "Moral Problem # 1: The Librarian in the Mud" describes a frightening experience during Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution. No. 7 juxtaposes a besieged Leningrad with a modern-day, consumer-driven St. Petersburg observed by a war survivor. Smith places another moral problem piece in 1934 Germany, another on an island "formerly the set for 'Gilligan's Island,' where you move through the miraculous air."

Setting fictions during perilous historical times, on a "metaphysical" island or "in the interstellar dark ... of the first galaxies" lends itself to cosmological thinking, e.g., the Law of Miracles. This law suggests "that given sufficiently large numbers, unlikely events will happen unexpectedly often." When a disturbed young woman longs for love, when a child dies as a result of random events, what does it mean?

In "Presently in Ruins," an ailing man longs to inhabit a model railroad mock-up of his hometown, Clifton, Conn., circa 1926. "The model railroad was a paradigmatic case of magical thinking." Better a magical, long-ago world for William Pike to live in than a realistic one. In the book, he and others ache for life, but a life recollected, "an archeology of [the] imagination," not one where "a paradoxical feature of chance" can upset everything.

In "The Madonna of the Relics," an American art conservator in Venice, who lives in the past "cleaning an archangel's silk or the Virgin's brocade," discovers in a young Dutch tourist his ideal beauty. To the troubled girl's dismay, he idealizes her in the way he idealizes the paintings he restores. Like William Pike of Connecticut, the conservator lives out of the reach of life (and love), preferring "empathy without consequences." He touches reality when he touches the tourist's self-inflicted wounds. In the instant "when she raised her tear-stained face to his, [he felt] a stream of gold about to pierce his heart" -- the same golden light of the painting he's restoring, Carpaccio's "Annunciation."

In this splendid book, Smith misses his mark once -- in an overwrought story about an Iowa Writers' Workshop poet, Ichabod Sick, who stalks a Mennonite girl and tortures a man. The moving ending somewhat redeems the piece.

A final moral problem, "A Cosmic Divertissement," begins fewer than two "seconds after the Big Bang." For the Creator, human struggle and longing, we learn, have been little more than a caprice, the biggest trick on us of all.

"The Law of Miracles" won the Juniper Prize for Fiction and a Minnesota Book Award. Gregory Blake Smith teaches at Carleton College in Northfield.

A former Christopher Isherwood Foundation fellowship recipient, Anthony Bukoski lives in Superior, Wis.