WASTED: The Preppie Murder by Linda Wolfe (Simon & Schuster: $19.95; 303 pp.)

Column edited by Sonja Bolle

Fresh-faced prep school youth may maneuver expensive toy boats across a stylized pond on Central Park's balmy days, but the park has always had a grizzly side of muggings, beatings and, in recent days, "wilding"--a word coined by the boys who assaulted a jogger last spring. In August, 1986, behind that outpost of civilization, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, another kind of wilding took place, branded "The Preppie Murder" by the tabloids. Jennifer Levin, headed for college that fall, was dead; her confessed killer was Robert Chambers, a 19-year-old Upper East Side resident who had been expelled from Choate and Browning.

Linda Wolfe's prologue deftly sketches the incidents of Aug. 26, from Jennifer's foray into a neighborhood bar to the discovery of her body, and the aftermath of Chambers' sentencing in April, 1988. Then she delves into the story--a terrifying account of youth lived with equal passion for social status (access to the right in-spots, clothes, friends) and sensual gratification (drugs, sex).

Although the author's overriding sentence structure often leads to leaps of logic, she pens a credible account of Levin's growing-up and her ability to make friends through sheer persistence and good spirits. Wolfe doesn't hook into Chambers' formative years as briskly; his family was not accessible to her for interviews.

Most compellingly chronicled are the events following Levin's death: the police bungling of evidence, a circus-like trial, the badgering media, the lawyers' dramatics. Unfortunately, Wolfe buys the "preppie" line of the press, and ignores her own facts: that Chambers and Levin were not newsprint abstractions of the wealthy elite, but ordinary kids who sought a place in a drug-injected, fast-lane society of youthful consumption. Their ordinariness makes the story all the more heart-breaking--a real-life incident ordained as an American tragedy.

A television movie on this subject, "The Preppie Murder," airs tonight at 9 on ABC.

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