ON THE FRONT of the dust jacket of Clive James' Unreliable Memoirs there is a photo of a woman and a small boy of four or five. She is pretty, dressed circa the early '40s, and facing the camera. The tyke in short pants hangs onto her hand, but is already turned a bit from the camera as though he wants to scram and get back to life. And who wouldn't? What a life that little squirt lived -- or wants us to believe he lived. The kid is Clive James and this is his story of what it was like growing up in Sydney, Australia, in the '40s and '50s. The tale is told with Jamesian brio -- in Bali where the only sin is to be boring he'd be a god -- and with hefty benefit of what Mark Twain called "creative" memory, remembering things that never happened.

He was raised by his mother on a small government pension (his father had been killed in a plane crash returning from a Japanese POW camp at the end of World War II), but we get only glimpses of her. She is an appealing woman lavishing love on an errant son who is bitten by a dob (a known psychopath who "would attack himself if nothing else was available"), ruins her privet hedge with his bike, and is deterred from running away when she packs a lunch for him. All innocent enough, a modern Bevis.

But when creative emmory gets going full-bore, restraint suffers and taste tumbles. In the preface, for example, he calls Rilke a prick for saying jail can be useful for poets. This is poor taste, not so much because of the expletive but because the context can't carry it. Later he tells us of Kenny Mears, the school bully "who embodied Gibbon's definition of the bararian, since his liberty was to indluge the whim of the moment, and his courage was to ignore the consequences. He was a freightful little s---." Here context carries.

Too often it doesn't. Raunch wins over taste -- and truth. Poop and pee evolve to erections and masturbation, culminating in Milo of the magnificent phallic proportions, a myth writ large, the boy we all remember knowing, or was it only hearing about? Milo who has his way frequently with Laurel and lets James and other friends have theirs. All this in what James says was one of the most strictly moralistic societies in the Western world!

At university James gets into an arts crowd for which his past four-movies-a-week-with-mother (she early on let him change his name from Vivian to Clive after a Tyrone Power movie) has not fitted him. But he learns quickly and stops asking gauche questions such as "What kind of a car was a Ford Madox Ford?" and "What sort of conflict was an Evelyn War?" and soon is drunk on Cummings and Mencken and awed by Pound. Then in 1962 as the book ends he's off to England, Cambridge, and the Big Leagues of writing where he will make it as a leading critic.

First Reactions , which gathers his critical essays on literature, television, and culture, reflects an end to extended adolescence. Little Boy Blue is now in long pants. And doing well. A note at the end of the book states that it was set in Electyra, "a simple, readable typeface that attempts to give a feeling of fluidity, power, and speed." James doesn't need it: his prose would move even if it were done in crayon.

Pasternak admired Pushkin's poetry because it was full of things. James, too, is full of things and these coalesce with reason and style, plus a restraint unusual in one still relatively young (42). He displays all these virtues in the lead essay on Edmund Wilson -- the finest in the book -- where he writes that Wilson's prose was so easily understood that he invited under-estimation, and compares him with Houdini whose most difficult escape was from a wet sheet but who abandoned it because it seemed too easy to the audience. "What Wilson was doing was never easy, but he had the good manners to make it look that way."

James' other pieces on writing are sane and quoteworthy: D. H. Lawrence "could reproduce reality with no effort whatsoever"; G. B. Shaw "was as obviously (and remains to this day) the greatest prose stylist in English as Croce was and remains the greatest in Italian." Equally good on the solid and ephemeral, he finds nuances in Auden, Larkin and Solzhenitsyn others haven't and reveals the artistic nakedness of Monroe and Mailer. And he's clued in on crime writing. On Conan Doyle, "To give your life, or any significant part of it, to the study of Sherlock Holmes is to defy reason." Then in a splendid essay he catches Raymond Chandler whole in ten words, "In a democracy of trash, Marlowe was the only aristocrat."

But it's gloves off when he touches television. The script and direction of the BBC's War and Peace , he writes, work together "as fatally as Laurel and Hardy tring to climb a wall." He devastates fat man futurologist Herman Kahn, a yogi who claims to be able to such mercury up through his penis, and Margaret Thatcher ("I've got witnesses to prove that my money was on the broad all along"), and outdoes Safire on that master of spoken Muzak, Alexander Haig ("It is almost impossible to understand him, since he crams so many polysyllabic abstractions into a sentence that he forgets the beginning before he reaches the end").

A brand-new book of James' TV criticism, The Crystal Bucket , has just been issued by Jonathan Cape in England and is available here through Merrimack Book Services, 99 Main Street, Salem, New Hampshire 03079 for $11.95. In it the same wicked wit consigns to the "demnition bow-wows" those dancing bears David Frost, Dick Nixon and Hank Kissinger -- in Vietman "we inherdided a dragedy" -- and other worthies like Bob Hope, Jane Fonda, and Dallas , the soap opera with an unlimited charge acocunt at Neiman-Marcus. But this is straight TV reportage, quotidian James and a cut below the quality of First Reactions .

A book should stand and it should move. James' recent books move, but only one stands. First Reactions is a brilliant work of serious and popular criticism which will delight Americans who don't already know James from The New York Review of Books. Unreliable Memoirs , on the other hand, is an abortive attempt to make a momma's boy into a Huck Finn, or worse, a Studs Lonigan. James should read Walter de la Mare on how it is to be a child and consult classics like Frank Kendon's the Small Years or R. H. Mottram's Autobiography with a Difference . And even research raunch. He can begin by reading E. E. Cummings "Poem 44" (in James' review of Poems 1923-1954 he says the page is left blank) reproduced in Complete Poems 1913-1362 , a poem that does contextual justice to redneckery. It may teach him not to cheat with cheap scatology. For now, the only solace is that he may yet return to that mother and that life and try again. First Reactions proves that he could to is up proper.