A slim collection of four-fifths perfection. In the improbably beautiful ''Jolene: A Life,'' the masterful 73-year-old author of Ragtime manages to obliterate white-trash cliches with the affecting tale of an orphaned, strawberry-haired teen who bounces from tattoo parlors to stripping poles and divorce court. An award-winning highlight, it stands only a bit above three other mini-masterworks concerning a fumbled kidnapping, a religious cult, and a frontier mother and son. Gracefully mordant and frequently heart-churning, these stories are worth the steep price of a book that's a mere 147 pages. The only miss is the final ''Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden,'' a pseudo-topical political conspiracy yarn as clunky as its title.