In the unusual mix of atmospheres around Lake Tahoe--natural scenic beauty, ski resorts, border gambling casinos--Jodi McGee grows up, a high-school senior. After a skiing accident, and already made receptive by adolescent anxieties and Darvon, she accepts Jesus after a born-again friend puts it to her plain: ""Try Jesus, Jodi. . . . He loves you the most. The other is darkness forever."" But what happens to a born-again high-school girl (no virgin but still tender-aged) when she falls in love--and not just platonically--with her sensitive and gentle young English teacher, Phillip Oswald? A dilemma: ""I could throw myself on Mr. Oswald, but if he took me I'd have to make him believe; if he didn't it would have to be sin, and if he turned me away I think I might have to blame it on Jesus."" Kuhlken has, with Jodi, created a character new to us--the born-again adolescent who's in the know--and he provides her with a grit and honesty that gives the book, when focused on Jodi, a special flavor. But Phillip's character and his attraction to Jodi are far less well-rendered. And late in the book--with its doom-and-death ending that will tie off the Jodi-Phillip connection--Kuhlken falls victim to a frequent first-novel failing. He begins to overdose on melodrama: Jodi's best-friend Charley is, improbably, a heroin addict, and then gets caught for grand theft auto; Phillip has a last, nightmarish spree in a casino; Jodi, flipped-out, takes to a mountain cabin and becomes a hermit. This accumulating chaos triggers events that all but swamp Jodi and her special, unique presence--but she remains an impressive creation, by far the best thing in a promising fiction debut.