An adolescent's philandering father is training him to be an arnist--until a woman steps between them. In his seventh novel (Tornado Alley, 1989, etc.), Nova matches his hard-boiled style with his blue-collar milieu--where small-time crooks and inscrutable Oriental kingpins do business--and enables the story barely to survive its stereotypes. It opens with California print-shop owner Dean Gollancz taking his son Ray with him to commit arson and collect payment from Mr. Mei, who reads Marcus Aurelius and leads the good life. ``I'm not a firebug,'' Dean tells his son. ``I'm an arsonist. There are good reasons for a building to disappear....'' While Ray learns the rules of the trade, Dean philanders on wife Marge, ten years his elder with a ``constant antagonism to the passage of time,'' and takes up with teenaged Iris Mason, whom Ray loves. Ray, who is smart enough for college (Dean: ``I thought you were going into the printing business. Isn't that what we'd always planned?''), takes the fall for Dean when Iris's father shows up at their house, enraged. Iris disappears (with help from Mei?); Ray leaves town, then returns to tell his father to ``stop acting like a small-time crook!'' and goes to Mei to locate Iris. In return for information, he agrees to torch a condo, and in Vegas--after digressions and filler--he finds Iris, a high-paid call girl. The two will take off--forever--after a final visit to Mr. Mei. Nova's eye for human detail and gritty texture is nearly unerring--even while elements of story and character occasionally veer too close to hackneyed genre formulations.