Poet Phillips's first novel gives us the standard youngster- on-the-cusp routine and does a nice job of it, too. Unfortunately, however, the momentum builds up past the author's ability to rein it in, and the joyride eventually runs off the road. Nicholas Wertheim, our hero, begins his story at the age of ten. This isn't an arbitrary start: He first meets Julia Turrell then, and that can be said to be the start of all his troubles. Julia is almost a decade his elder, but Nick is precocious enough to fall in love at first sight, and his family is eccentric enough to make his precocity credible: His hippie parents have to be nagged into wearing clothes at home, for example, and Nick and his big sister Del learn how to make out by practicing on each other. Although Julia quickly goes back to Bennington and loses contact with Nick, the two find themselves reunited seven years on, when Nick starts college at Cornell--where Julia is a graduate student. This time his affections are requited, after a fashion: Julia is violent, drunken, unfaithful, temperamental, and as mad as the wind, often disappearing without warning for years at a clip in order to return in a more alluring and passionate guise. Nick is lost. ``Now, a story, as I understand it, is a matter of What Does Our Hero Do Next? The difficulty in telling the story of a cement- assed depressive like me is that our hero does nothing next, and does it over and over.'' Quite. When Julia is out of the picture, Nick mopes around, working at loser jobs, dating loser girlfriends. When Julia breezes back home, he drops everything and falls into bed with her. Eventually he breaks loose and settles down, but by the time he gets around to it, one feels more exhaustion than relief. Immensely likable but far too long (and long-winded): monomania rather than focus.