January 13, 1997 12:00 PM

by Robert Olen Butler

Today’s wilder supermarket tabs may promise real-life accounts of lovesick aliens, vengeful nymphomaniacs and Titanic survivors, but they rarely deliver. Tabloid Dreams, an inventive and surprisingly straight-faced collection of short stories, takes an imaginative leap into the tales that could lie behind the attention-grabbing headlines. In “Nine-Year-Old Boy Is World’s Youngest Hit Man,” a child’s resentment of. his deadbeat dad takes a strikingly Oedipal turn; in “Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover,” Butler deftly captures the heartache of an insomniac hairdresser pining for a kind-hearted alien she met in a Wal-Mart parking lot. A Pulitzer Prize winner for his 1992 collection A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, Butler renders these 12 stories in humorous yet intimate terms. His characters hunger for happiness, passion and significance. His touch is light and ironic, revealing the poignant everyday truths that lurk behind even the most sensational and bizarre of circumstances. (Holt, $22.50)

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