First-time novelist Stein tells the surprisingly appealing story of a teenager living through the complexity of a premature adulthood. Comparisons between Stein's narrator, 16-year-old Will Sterling, and the immortal Holden Caulfield are inescapableWill wisecracks his way through his strengths, weaknesses, and myriad adolescent confusionsbut the kid also owes something to Joyce's Stephen Dedalus. In place of aesthetics and the loss of faith, Will has math and suburban New Jersey: He's obsessed with probability, doesn't exactly make fast time with the chicks, hangs out with an older married couple and their kids, and suffers his mother's endless stream of desperation dates. ``I came to understand one basic law of probability that I had missed: we are prepared for the last thing that happened and not what's next,'' Will comments after aspects of his stable world begin to get twisted. His older friends, Terri and Shep Kean, split up, and he drifts into an awkward yet instructive sexual relationship with Sara, the only woman in his life who is roughly his age. Sara has a boyfriend, so scenes of her groping and petting with Will carry a certain illicit charge, but Stein presents their initiation in a thoroughly off-kilter manner, spicing the youthful seduction with oddball banter. In Sara, Will has met his matchso much so that you want the two of them to endure into their late 20s rather then pass through the inevitable breakup. Not that Sara is Will's only concern; the novel provides plentiful side excursions from its swift and skillfully compressed plot: basketball, driving to New York, the deaths of fathers, hanging out with black guys, and the usual trials of high schoolall are captured in Stein's adeptly woven fictional net. In other hands, this could have emerged as just another tale of an irritatingly precocious child hero. From Stein, though, the result is an absolute charmer with a spry and sarcastic edge.