For many years, John Barth was one of a bawdy, funny, unruly crowd of writers who came to be known, through no fault of their own, as "postmodernists." The group included Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, Ursule Molinaro, and a host of brainy others. The movement has passed on, but in The Development (Houghton Mifflin), Barth's generous, wry, and off-kilter set of stories, he reminds us of the strength and fine wit such writers brought to their keen observations of seemingly normal, but actually surreal, American life. These related stories are all set on Maryland's Eastern Shore, and depict the almost-ready-for-retirement residents of an affluent "gated community" named Heron Bay Estates. The peculiar and compelling quality of these stories lies in Barth's ability to combine irony and tenderness, to add a mordant humor and even quiet respect to his characters' lives of groomed lawns and imminent oblivion. Barth is like an amused elder among aging contemporaries who haven't quite realized the game is pretty much up. He enjoys the hijinks of these putatively grown-up suburbanites with their weird toga parties, their college English department posturing, their sexual indiscretions, and, finally, their inevitable dark nights of the soul. All comedy, when examined closely, touches on deep questions of morality: What is funny about us humans is how short we fall of our own moral convictions, and, as Barth sees well, how likable we somehow remain.