THERE IS ANOTHER cluster of novels, many of them written in the 18th century, that cheerfully chronicle a young man or woman's sexual adventures and misadventures. Tom Jones and Moll Flanders come to mind. Such books treat sex as something natural instead of something picked up in an adult bookstore. They rather mockingly acknowledge what George Orwell called "the voice of the belly protesting against the soul."

They resemble Jack Ritter, the central character of Bernard Packer's The Sons of Saintly Women, a senior at UCLA in the 1950s. He comes from South Phillie, he wants to be a writer, and he looks on each encounter and every job as future material. In Mexico City while studying Spanish (UCLA has messed up his class schedule) he meets Nancy from Cleveland. Nancy is keeping herself for her wedding night but marriage is not what Ritter has in mind. Back in LA Nancy finally weakens, but her integrity is preserved by Ramirez, who is more interested in Ritter's class notes than Ritter's love life.

Nancy, quite literally saved by the bell, returns to Cleveland at the summons of her ailing mother, and Ritter concentrates on the brainy but neurotic Sherri. Again badly timed interruptions spoil Jack's performance, and he begins to doubt his own prowess. Sherri is succeeded by Nina, who calls him Michael because Jack "is too race-track, too much off the streets"; by Alicia, who thinks about her professor while she makes love to him; and by Jill, the whore with the proverbial heart of gold. There are others in between. Jack graduates and prepares to ship out from LA still searching, if not for women, for enlightenment.

It is a book about simpler times before relationships, co-ed dorms and the Pill. Jack Ritter, too, is a hero of simpler dimensions: good humored, self-deprecating and optimistic about the future. And sex is natural, playful and not loaded with the arsenal of contemporary expectations, politics and athletic prowess.