Like Pam Houston's popular collection Cowboys Are My Weakness, Gilbert's first book of stories take place in the stark surroundings of the contemporary West. Whether Gilbert's characters find themselves in Missoula or New York, however, we see them struggle toward lives that always seem just beyond their grasp. In the title story, an East Coast girl challenges a Wyoming cowhand to run off with her, knowing they won't, knowing that the mountains that call them also keep them trapped. In ""Tall Folks,"" an East Village bar owner sees the end of her business arrive with the opening of a strip joint across First Avenue. Looking back at the bar owner's habit of hiring women bartenders to attract customers, Gilbert writes: ""She had done very well this way, brokering these particular and necessary loves."" An eye for convincing detail and a comic's ear ("" `Every good joke begins, ""A man walks into a bar' "") mark each of these 12 stories. They waver only in the endings: too many trail off prematurely, before they can take on appreciable depth. The most obvious exception is ""The Finest Wife,"" about an elderly schoolbus-driver who, one morning, finds all her past lovers waiting in place of the kindergartners she usually picks up. Told with an air of easy magic, this charming tale promises full-length, warm-blooded, compelling work to come. Author tour. (Sept.) FYI: Gilbert won the 1996 Paris Review New Discovery Prize.