Published August 12, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

Teenage disillusionment is as alive in the 1990s as it was in Holden Caulfield's day, but it's become a hell of a lot more sophisticated. At least that's the impression you get from reading Kevin Canty's first novel, "Into the Great Wide Open." The 17-year-old protagonist, Kenny Kolodny, has to contend with an alcoholic father, an institutionalized mother and a mysterious, dysfunctional love object named Junie Williamson. He also has before him the riddle of adulthood, with its casual attitude toward falsehood. "It was interesting," Kevin ruminates at one point, "how much of adult life consisted of pretending. At the country club, for instance, where he worked the summer before, everybody did a lousy job of whatever they were supposed to be doing. . . Nobody was fired, nobody was criticized. They all respected each other. Everything was fine."

This seeming conspiracy on the part of adults has been the subject of many a coming-of-age novel, but Canty writes about it with a peculiar, pained elegance. And Kenny's pet fantasy -- to create a history of the future, complete with "the Trylon and the Perisphere, the Apollo program" -- sounds exactly right for a teenager exhausted by the present, and afraid of what it might turn into five years down the road. If Kenny's voice occasionally sounds too learned, a touch too prose-like, well, there's that sophistication thing I mentioned above.

By James Marcus

James Marcus is a critic, translator and novelist living in Portland, Oregon. He is a regular contributor to Salon.

MORE FROM James Marcus

Related Topics ------------------------------------------