IN Hundreds of Fireflies, Brad Leithauser's collection of poems which was a nominee for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1983, there is a delightful poem depicting young Brad's summer of '71 teaching tennis before taking off to "the big H" (Harvard) with great expectations to become a writer, only to find himself, eight years later, a law clerk already "caught in the trappings of a Wall Street lawyer." Inspired more by the poetic qualities of the Manhattan skyline than by the briefs before him, he spins off quatrains -- this poem, which ends with a vow to leave New York for good. Leithauser's first novel, Equal Distance, is, in many ways, a sequel to to the poem -- a young man's search for the big S(something, someone, somewhere) -- and, as in the poem, the writing is sprightly, sprinkled throughout with wit and humor, and a delight to read.

The book opens with Danny Ott, almost 23, taking a year off from Harvard Law, aboard Japan Air Lines on his way to Kyoto where he will work as an assistant to a famous Japanese scholar of jurisprudence. In the first of many minute but telling observations, Danny writes to his dad, a Detroit auto executive: "I can see already why Ford is having so much trouble competing with the Japanese automakers. There's a little Japanese boy sitting nearby, maybe seven years old, who has been playing with a calculator for about an hour. A future captain of Japanese industry."

After just a few days in Japan, Danny realizes that the country "had instantly altered him, body and mind. It had made him taller, and tinted his hair a brighter red." Being a foreigner gives him special privileges and drawbacks: "He had already begun to undersand and accept as fitting that as a gaijin, a Westerner, he was patiently permitted to hold up a bus because he'd neglected to carry the proper change, or to lose his ticket on the train; that as a gaijin he would be everywhere greeted by schoolchildren ('har-row, har-row') who giggled at the foreignness of their own voices; and that he would everywhere be peered at, but especially inside the public bath."

Danny meets Greg Blaising, veteran expatriate bum (big H, class of '75), who's ended up teaching English in Kyoto after failing to find nirvana in Mexico, Europe, Africa, India or Nepal. "We belong to that generation that has resisted growing up more successfully than any in the history of America," Greg tells Danny. After a crazy first encounter, the two soon become close friends, with Greg leading the way away from Danny's studies toward "Candyland," where rows and rows of neon lights flicker and beckon in multicolor -- the True Time Texas saloon, the discos, the bars. Their highfalutin' conversations flow along with sake and beer into the wee hours of the Kyoto morning, the younger Danny discovering more wisdom from Greg's boozy talk than from the study of law with his professor.

Then along comes Carrie -- rich, spoiled, blue-eyed and blond (another Ivy Leaguer) -- and Danny finds love in Kyoto, often disrupted though, by Greg's meddling ways. And so a year passes by, Danny trying to sort out what he really wants out of life, trying to cope with his parents' divorce, his old and new romances, trying all along to shorten the distance between each of his various relationships -- parents, friend, love, culture.

MUCH of the novel's appeal lies in Leithauser's perceptive, often humorous, descriptions of Kyoto life. Although the book is not intended as travelogue, Leithauser's comic descriptions of what befalls our young hero in the lopsided universe that is Japan are reminiscent of scenes in Paul Theroux's The Great Railway Bzaar: a loudspeaker announces at an ancient monastery that the shrine is dedicated to silence; a very scrutable monk solves Danny and Carrie's predicament over a soda machine by giving it a savage kick with his wooden clog; the sound of loud slurping emanates from a dainty Japanese lady eating noodles. And baffling messages like this:

"NO PAN NO BURRA said the signboard held aloft by a shabby old man whose look of soured patience and resignation suggested a striker. But he wasn't a striker, Danny realized, he was a pitchman for a restaurant or coffee shop. NO PAN NO BURRA seemed some sort of garbled attempt at a French or Spanish rendering of No Bread, No Butter, but (a second realization) that wasn't what was intended. As the voluptuous little red-haired cartoon nude below the words made clear, this was Japanese-English for no panties, no bra."

Brad Leithauser is an accomplished poet and a lawyer who spent several years as a research fellow at the Kyoto Comparative Law Center. He has recived many awards for his writings and, while in Japan, got the news that he had won a coveted MacArthur Foundation grant. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the immense character DAI (meaning "big" or "great") etched on Daimonji mountain in Kyoto also adorns the cover of this book. As this first novel shows clearly, Leithauser is on the right track toward something BIG.