`THE typical first novel...'' No sooner does one begin the sentence than half a dozen objections spring to mind. The problem is not that it's difficult to generalize about first novels. The problem is, it's all too easy. ``The typical first novel,'' we might say, ``is a quasi-autobiographical story about coming of age written by a young writer.'' We may be thinking of a long, dense book like Thomas Wolfe's ``Look Homeward, Angel'' (1929) or of the youthful, quirky voice of Holden Caulfied denouncing phoniness in J.D. Salinger's taut and pithy ``The Catcher in the Rye'' (1951).
Yet, one of the most successful first novels in publishing history, Margaret Mitchell's ``Gone with the Wind'' (1936), was published when its author was in her 36th year. Far from being overtly autobiographical, it deals with a huge cast of characters set in the context of historical events of the previous century.
Nor is the first novel always the product of a young writer's pen. The British novelist Mary Wesley and the American writers Harriet Doerr and Helen Hooven Santmeyr saw their first novels published when they were in their 70s or, in the last case, 80s. Sometimes, what seems to be an author's first novel is not really her first: ``Jane Eyre'' was the first of Charlotte Bront"e's novels to be published, but the first novel that she wrote, ``The Professor,'' was not published until after her death. Jane Austen's first published novel, ``Sense and Sensibility,'' came out in 1811, when she was 36 and had been writing, revising, and submitting various fictional works ever since her teens.
Although balked publication - or late flowering - would seem to figure prominently in the careers of women writers, whose debuts (particularly in the 19th century) were delayed by the dismissiveness of male publishers or (a more timeless factor) by the demands of wife and motherhood, there have been similar anomalies in the careers of men as well, such as the posthumous publication of John Kennedy Toole's ``Confederacy of Dunces.''
First novels have dealt with every subject from love to war, from the glamor of the Jazz Age in F. Scott Fitzgerald's ``This Side of Paradise'' (1920) to the squalor of the world of William Burrough's ``Junkie'' (published under a pseudonym in 1953). Although many are confessional, some are less personal forms, like parables and social satires. Often, the most memorable first novels are those that venture farthest from the standard autobiographical format, like Alan Paton's poignant exposure of South African racism, ``Cry, the Beloved Country'' (1948), published when he was a 45-year-old warden of a reformatory.
Still, a reviewer can't help noticing something like a ``typical'' first novel when confronted with one, which happens all the time. It does, indeed, read like fictionalized autobiography and usually appears to be the distillation, either of the gradual process of growing up or of a more abrupt encounter with the world of adult experience that might be classified as a rite of initiation or passage. Beverly Coyle's ``The Kneeling Bus,'' a group of linked stories about a girl growing up in rural Florida in the 1950s, and Tom Grime's ``A Stone of the Heart,'' about one summer in the life of a boy growing up in the 1960s in Queens, are two recent - and engaging - examples.
While most first novels focus on the sensibility of a single character, others like Fitzgerald's and Evelyn Waugh's ``Decline and Fall'' (1928) manage to evoke the aura of an entire milieu. World War II furnished a generation of writers with material for their first novels, including James Jones's ``From Here to Eternity'' (1951), Irwin Shaw's ``The Young Lions'' (1948), and Norman Mailer's ``The Naked and the Dead'' (1948). The Vietnam War has also spawned it's share of first novels, but none thus far of comparable influence. Even ``Catch-22'' (1961), a favorite text of the Vietnam War generation, was the first novel of World War II veteran Joseph Heller, who set his book in that period.
Some first novels mark the modest, but promising, debut of a talent that blossoms more fully later. The British novelist Anita Brookner made her classic ``debut'' in a novel aptly entitled ``The Debut'' (its American title; in England it bore the equally apt title, ``A Start in Life''). Since that quiet beginning, she has gone on from strength to strength. But, while many first novels serve as opportunities for writers to ``warm up,'' others show the presence of an imagination already on fire that may or may not burn out after the first flush of enthusiasm. Lisa Alther's first novel, ``Kinflicks'' (1976), caught the feel of the 1960s in a way that her later books have not quite managed to do for the decades that followed. Heller's ``Catch-22'' also displayed a spark of inspiration that is difficult to find in the author's later works. Indeed some first novelists never go on to write other novels. ``Wuthering Heights'' was Emily Bront"e's only book, published in 1847, the year before she died. Kate Chopin's first novel, ``The Awakening'' (1899), caused such consternation among the critics for its ``morbid'' sexual content that its author never attempted another long work.
The quest for love, marriage, and/or sexual experience, a major theme long before Chopin's ``Awakening,'' continues to reverberate, most recently in the first novels of self-identifying gay writers like Christopher Bram's ``Surprising Myself'' and Christopher Osborn's ``A Sense of Touch.'' Paul Monette's first novel, ``Afterlife,'' focusing on a group of characters still reeling from the deaths of friends and lovers to AIDS, is in some respects a kind of sequel to his earlier nonfiction account of his own loss in ``Borrowed Time.''
Oddly enough, a recent trend in the first novels of especially trendy young writers like Brett Easton Ellis (``Less Than Zero''), Michael Chabon (``The Mysteries of Pittsburgh''), and Hanif Kureishi (``The Buddha of Suburbia'') is what might be called the obligatory homosexual encounter, a further refinement on the standard rite of the obligatory (heterosexual) sex scene.
Many of today's first novels reflect the timely realities of growing up in a broken home, coping with irresponsible, neurotic, or substance-abusing parents. The narrator of Dennis McFarland's ``The Music Room'' struggles to come to terms with the suicide of his brother and the alcoholic disaster of his parents' marriage. And two first novels set around the time of the second World War about characters who emigrated from Europe to South America, Elena Castedo's ``Paradise'' and Gabriela De Serrari's ``A Cloud on Sand,'' focused on a daughter's relationship with her difficult divorced mother. It's rather as if the prevalence of certain themes that directly reflect contemporary realities encourages other writers to seek out these themes in the past as well, bringing to light motifs long hidden. Matthew Stabler's unusual ``Landscape: Memory'' (being published this September by Scribner's) is a homosexual love story of adolescence set in San Francisco in the years leading up to World War I.
The search for a usable past has also been a feature of first novels that dip into family history, like Gary Glickman's Jewish family saga, ``Years from Now,'' and Amy Tan's ``The Joy Luck Club,'' which gracefully negotiates the distance between the world of four Chinese immigrant women and that of their American-born daughters. The once-popular paradigm of young people rebelling against their stodgy parents has lately taken a back seat to novels that show a desire to understand and re-imagine the vanishing world that the parents once knew.
Few first novelists have as yet focused on an equally salient feature of contemporary life: problems in the workplace. Even campus satires of the kind that once flourished, like Malcolm Bradbury's ``Eating People is Wrong'' (1959), are scarcely to be found. An interesting exception to this was Edward Allen's comically horrifying account of a college-educated man's downward spiral into the world of meat-packing in ``Straight Through the Night.''
First novels remain traditionally, if not universally, novels of apprenticeship, for protagonists and writers alike. Their prevailing themes are variations on the passage from innocence to experience. They are also about generational conflict, which can take the form of a domestic struggle between parent and child or a clash between the non-conforming protagonist and a social order that seems to hold no place for him. What distinguishes the heroes and heroines of many recent first novels from those that have come before them is the extent to which the current crop of apprentices seem to face a world that is not a monolith against which they would rebel, but a fragmented kaleidoscope which they are trying to piece together.