PROBABILITIES by Michael Stein (Permanent Press: $22; 175 pp.) Sixteen-year-old Will Sterling is a math whiz--probability theory is his forte--and an important member of his high school basketball team in suburban New Jersey. Love, though, is neither an equation nor a slam dunk, and Will's romantic difficulties are threefold. His widowed mother has effectively abandoned him to date a series of dubious men. Sara, who is Will's age, wants a deeper commitment than he feels he can afford. Terri, who is 40 and lives in Connecticut, is part of the surrogate family Will visits on weekends; he lusts after her at the same time as he prays that her marriage to a prep-school teacher will hold together.
Michael Stein's first novel gives us a hero in the Holden Caulfield tradition--cynical on the outside, tender on the inside, too smart for his own good. He clings to the gestures but not the spirit of rebellion in an age of faded causes and sagging institutions when rebellion seems not only futile but silly. Stein fails to get a fix on the mother, but he is good on Will's friendship with Billy, a teammate who has also lost a father; and he reminds us that teen-age sex can be exhilarating as well as dangerous. "Probabilities" won't change lives as "Catcher in the Rye" did, but it's a witty and affecting debut.