By Jay Woodruff
Updated May 18, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

It was Richard Yates’ lousy luck to emerge as a full-blown, dyed-in-the-wool realist at precisely the moment American tastes were shifting toward more ostentatious literary experiments. His naturalism, compared to the more zeitgeisty work of contemporaries like Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut, struck many Vietnam-era readers as quaintly anachronistic. But a funny thing happened on the way to The Collected Stories of Richard Yates: Writers like Raymond Carver, Andre Dubus, and Tim O’Brien helped make the world safe again for his kind of clear-eyed, hard-boiled realism, and the biggest surprise in this long-overdue retrospective is that seven of these fine stories somehow never got published before the author died in 1992. Yates probes the dark side of the American dreamscape, illuminating characters whose ambitions consistently outstrip their abilities. Evoking entire worlds in a few words, Yates leads us into homes that smell ”of cauliflower and over-shoes” to reveal characters at the moment they’re startled out of some comfort-ing delusion and left fully exposed to ”the fear that grips the bowels of a child lost in a crowd.” A