Amy Hempel's stories are as apparently aimless as her whimsical, accident-prone characters, who don't so much muddle through as muddle in place. But there is method in her muddledness. She is a leading exponent of minimalist fiction, a movement sometimes blamed on TV, on graduate writing programs, or on the decline of Western civilization, but which has roots going back at least as far as Sherwood Anderson and Hemingway. The idea is to avoid conventional narrative development and dramatic climaxes and achieve your effect in an elliptical way a few terse, oblique details, images, lines of dialogue, yielding a sudden illumination or at least a tangible mood.
Several of the abrupt, deadpan stories in At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom work pretty well in this way. ''The Most Girl Part of You,'' which seems to be a random accumulation of teenage gaucheries, turns into a story of sexual awakening as the narrator is swept off her adolescent feet by her capricious, latently sensitive lummox of a friend Jack ''Big Guy'' Fitch, a process nicely clinched by a prosaic metaphor: ''And I see that not touching for so long was a drive to the beach with the windows rolled up so the waves feel that much colder.'' In ''Tom-Rock Through the Eels,'' a young woman sitting in an overnight train runs through the oddities of all the mothers and their daughters she has known as a way of teasing some significance out of her tangential relationship with her own mother, who committed suicide.
In other stories animals loom large as consoling embodiments of an elusive innocence and as victims of the world's indifference, which is also what the women in these stories feel themselves to be. But the title story, instead of subtly precipitating some delicate revelation, simply collapses into bathos. At least Hempel can't be accused, like some other minimalists, of only being monotonously blase. When she isn't busy being blase, she is thoroughly sentimental.
The closest thing to a persistent virtue in these thin stories is their sneaky comic flair. She collects mildly eccentric characters, feeds them moderately funny wisecracks, and furnishes them with a modest assortment of knockabout incongruities. But most of the stories, like most of the characters, are too earnestly melancholy to be comic in overall effect. Too often the incongruities add up only to the self-pity of Hempel's standard rueful female narrator, and too often they add up only to incongruity. A sentence in an amusing checklist of New York grotesqueries called ''And Lead Us Not Into Penn Station'' manages to achieve both results at once: ''I am as cut off from meaning and completion as all of these crippled people.'' Luckily, all of these crippled people don't get book contracts. C-