The relationships among four youngish New York City media types: occasionally satiric, more often earnest, belabored, and murky. Kelly Martin is returning to the city after some schoolteaching out west--where she sought refuge after a bad love-affair with a crass songwriter and an out-of-proportion little writing success (with a series of satiric profiles). Her first stop is the trendy downtown apartment of pretentious, climbing photographer/conceptual-artist Penelope, the friend who has found Kelly an Upper West Side sublet. And the dinner guests at Penelope's turn out to be TV daytime-talk host Billy Bell and his longtime right-hand-man/adviser, Jennings White--both of whom are attracted to bright, quiet, attractive Kelly. The roman-a-clef-ish Billy, unfortunately, is a handsomely vain clown, secretly insecure, thriving on celebrity-dom, now planning a branching-out into politics: Kelly (turned off by the whole media-hype scene) leaves him cold at a name-droppy nightspot, which infuriates the unstable, increasingly alcoholic Billy. . . to the point of rape. On the other hand, Jennings is no prize as a suitor either: he's closed-off, tense, distracted, torpid--preoccupied with some imminent inner change in himself, with his crumbling attachment to the new, unpleasant Billy. (""He was no longer sure he wanted a serious relationship with Kelly. A shared life with a woman of intelligent passion would demand the best part of his energy, determine most of the meaning he found in life. It would threaten his natural detachment, a perspective he now sensed could yield something important."") So there's a series of edgy, static encounters--in apartments, restaurants, at a trendy department store, at Penelope's summer place--between Jennings and Kelly, Billy and Kelly, Jennings and Billy. Then, in the novel's most strained contrivance, all three become involved, in one way or another, with Sylvia, a peep-show dancer who's naively dazzled by Billy's celebrity-hood. (Billy, a noisy opponent of pornography, is secretly ignited by dirty-sex.) And finally, as the prose becomes increasingly self-conscious, Kelly is further disillusioned (""She was done making the effort""), poseurs Billy and Penelope pair off. . . while Jennings glimpses some ""obscure but strong idea of how to live."" First-novelist Stevens is strong on some of the surfaces of N.Y. relationships, weak (verbose and vague) when trying to suggest the psychology beneath; unsatisfying, too, is the heavily intoned theme of celebrity-hood and public image. Only in the scenes of social satire, in fact, does the book become animated--especially in a rather cartoonish send-up of Penelope, who's giving a public reading from her diary; and it seems likely that Stevens (a Newsweek art critic) could write a fine comic novel on the Soho scene. This debut, meanwhile, is intelligent yet lifeless--without the charm or drive of recent N.Y.-relationship novels by Laurie Colwin, Gwyneth Cravens, and others.