A huge best seller in England,"" we're told--which must mean either that critic James (First Reactions, p. 956) is a media celebrity over there or that the un-prettified adolescent-memoir genre (raunchy, self-deprecating) is still something of a novelty to the English. In any case, US readers--no strangers to the masturbation/ acne/inferiority-complex routine--will still find some engaging quirks in these crisp, smartsy recollections of growing-up in Sydney, Australia. Born in 1939, James had an absent father (a POW) and then none at all (a plane crash when James was five). The result was ""an absurdly carefree upbringing"" by his nervous, poor mother: pre-teen James was a ""force of destruction""--wrecking the neighbors' flowers, knocking out street-lights, ineptly wearing a homemade mask-and-cape as junior gang-leader (""Only lack of opportunity saved us from outright delinquency""). Then, however, came puberty and more social activities: the Cubs, a mutual-masturbation phase (""I was queer as a coot""), agonies as a slow-developer in high school (""you can die of envy for cratered faces weeping with yellow pus""), panic over penis size (""In a class full of cock-watchers, I had to keep something between my shrinking twig and a hundred prying eyes""), success as the class clown, and the onset of heterosexual horniness. Fairly diverting material--but James self-indulgently provides more detail than most readers will want: e.g., on lapses in hygiene (""the snot supply,"" accidental bowel movements). And only the final chapters--about his gawky college awakening to literature and art (""I was not yet fully divested of the impression that E.M. Forster's principal creation had been Horatio Hornblower"")--are consistently fresh and funny. Intermittent amusement, then, as tedium and arch self-regard alternate with genuine insights and vividly-evoked youthful stumblings.