Robert Stone is a master of language, herding words into a hypnotic circle that suggests each phrase is carefully weighed and measured. He has a comparable gift for description: In his latest, Bay of Souls, a chilly wife disapproves of hunting, despite growing up on a farm where she was ''forever borrowing her male relations' jackets with pockets full of jerky, tobacco plugs and bright red shotgun shells.'' Elsewhere, a day ''composed itself around the skeletal woods,'' while a mother is ''constantly threatening...with the abridgement of love.''
While poetry has its place, there is a separate shelf for novels. And in ''Bay,'' the author of ''Damascus Gate'' is not displaying the best of his narrative skills. As if in answer to the adage that there are no new stories, Stone decides to tell a good dozen of them in one short volume. The novel opens with a Midwest college professor on a hunting trip with friends. The tension in the woods is set up so tautly, we suspect an errant murder. But wait -- the prof is called back home; his son is in the hospital, dying of hypothermia. So this will be a novel about parents dealing with grief. No, no -- the son gets better, and the professor begins an affair with a colleague. Very David Lodge...until the colleague turns out to have a wiggy past with voodoo undertones, which leads our hero to a tropical island in the middle of a coup. A little ''Dr. No,'' a little John le Carré -- wholly a mess, though one composed of exquisitely rendered parts.