CITY OF BOYS by Beth Nugent (Alfred A. Knopf: $20; 293 pp.) People keep getting snagged by wrong love in Nugent's collection of short stories; it rises in unwieldy proportion, from an unexpected direction, and reroutes a character's life. Or worse, and running through most of Nugent's writing, it does not come from the places one would hope to find it, from a parent, a sibling, a close friend, and so compromises are made, consolations accepted. Either way, these stories are bleak, flat landscapes of discomfort, in which the few moments of emotional connection shine like some bright beacon, a single spot in an otherwise gray haze. The young woman in the title story has fled a controlling mother for an affair with an older woman who, in her own clumsy way, tries to run the young girl's life. The narrator in "Cocktail Hour" is as abused as if her alcoholic parents beat her, humiliated into borrowing breakfast from yet another set of new neighbors, whose daughters she had hoped to make into friends. In "At the End of My Life," a deft sample of Nugent's eerie ability to balance anguish and devotion, a girl's younger brother threatens to disrupt her idyllic college existence, and yet she cannot turn him away. A difficult, slicingly painful set of stories that exert an almost hypnotic hold on the reader.