MR. BONES. By Paul Theroux. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 359 pages. $27.

It's funny just how persnickety reading tastes can get. To my mind, no contemporary writer is better than Jim Harrison, but I've never really taken to his poetry. That's how it is with Paul Theroux: Nobody writes travel better. Nobody. But his widely popular fiction doesn't captivate me like that.

"Mr. Bones" goes a ways toward reconciling the dichotomy.

This short story compilation is darkly barbed portraits of a coterie of misfits and misanthropes: a staid middle-age New Englander who becomes obsessed with an Asian transvestite, a few outcast eighth-graders who decide to build a bomb, that sort of thing. At times the subjects seem taken up just for effect, but at times they transfix.

The title portrait is a hapless nice-guy, a 1950s husband and father who turns into a gargoylic caricature of himself when he takes on the blackface role of Mr. Bones in a church minstrel show.

Then there's the portrait of Mrs. Everest:

" 'I used to be a gourmet cook,' she said. 'I gave lavish dinner parties.'

"Was this true? No one I knew had ever eaten her food or been to a dinner party she'd given. She only ate in restaurants, presiding over the table.

She ordered three courses and picked at them, hardly eating, never finishing. But in those rare moments when she chewed some food, a hidden part of her personality became apparent - a wolfish energy and appetite, her yellow teeth chomping, her turned-down mouth working, an alertness the whole time, her gaze widened as though to ward off an intruder. Then she spat. After that she'd pass a knuckle across the crumbs on her lips, push the plate aside, and say to the waitress, 'Take this away.' "

Whew. One thing for sure, there are enough gremlins torturing their way through their lives in this 20-story collection for at least a few of them to grab hold of you. And they will be tough to shake free.

Reviewer Bo Petersen is a reporter for The Post and Courier.