WINNING THE CITY

By Theodore Weesner

Summit Books. 208 pp. $17.95

THEODORE WEESNER'S novels about teenage boys, The Car Thief (1972), A German Affair (1976), and, now, Winning the City, do just what such books should do without going hog wild about it. They deal with nothing less than the relation between will and existence. Never abstract, never tedious, they are uncompromisingly realistic accounts of the lives of boys whose shabby social standing puts them smack up against the question of whether it is possible for a man to control the shape of his own life.

Winning the City is Theodore Weesner's fourth novel. It is about motherless, 15-year-old Dale Wheeler, the son of an alcoholic auto worker. Dale imagines that he can turn his life around through excellence in basketball -- specifically by leading a team of his classmates to winning the city playoffs. He has spent the summer practicing -- picking up teams, playing alone -- night and day. He believes in himself, governing his fervid will to win with admonitory incantations: "Don't be a fool -- play it cool." "Don't be a jerk -- do the work!" Dale is ready to reap what he imagines he has sown. With an adolescent's freshly minted sense of justice, he hasn't figured on life's dirty tricks.

And then, in steps Von Bothner. The Von Bothner. One time All-America at "Niagara University." After that, seven years starting center "for none other than the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons." Now, plant supervisor, Chevrolet Plant Four. Also thoroughbred horse breeder. Also father of soap box derby winners, Keith and Karl. Also the man who snaps up Dale Wheeler's team by sponsoring it for the city tournament, who puts his own sons on it, and who leaves Dale out in the cold. A rotten deal.

What's a boy to do? Well, Dale hooks up with a street rat team, the Little Missourians. Tough and declasse', the team is made up of the sons of hillbilly auto workers. Indeed, Dale's antecedents are hillbilly too, although his sensibilities are not. But he has been shafted by the establishment and he plays great ball, so he's pretty much O.K. by their lights.

Here are the time-honored conventions of the boys' book and the story stays true to form by culminating in The Big Game. This compelling, predictable structure is ideal for Weesner's painful consciousness. His first novel, The Car Thief, while certainly masterly in its desolate way, was nonetheless a story of such alienation and sprawling melancholy that reading it made one long to go to bed for life. Winning the City has its moments of melancholy and alienation and certainly of squeezing pain, but the shape of the story, its inevitabilities, and, not least of all, the utterly enthralling sports action, fend off despair.

For all this, however, Winning the City turns the tables on boys' books which have as their message that games are a metaphor for life. Dale initially buys this notion: "Life, he told himself with clarity, is a game. It's a game all the way, and everything depends on how you play it." He soon discovers his error and is almost as distressed by having misapprehended the nature of life as he is by the actual injustices he has suffered. The fact is, Weesner's heroes put understanding, or "a true eye," as Billy Kohl of A German Affair calls it, above everything. And so, obviously, does Weesner. He provides cruel glimpses of the motivations of the people who make life unfair. Small-pond big fish Von Bothner and high school basketball coach Burke, to mention only two, are the wielders of pathetic, indecent power. The facts of life as Weesner scrupulously renders them here point to the conclusion that games are a metaphor of what life is not.

In Winning the City, Weesner returns to some of the ground he covered in his first novel, The Car Thief. Back again is the apartment on Chevrolet Avenue. Back is a boy who finds order and solace in Euclid's theorems. And back too is Curly, the boy's well-meaning, ineffectual and whiskey-soaked father who likes to spiff himself up to step out on a Saturday night and whose squandered life is once again terribly and forcefully conveyed. In both books, the boys achieve self-understanding and a measure of freedom by accepting -- embracing even -- the elements of their fathers within themselves. This is a form of honesty that is not unmixed with hopelessness. On the other hand, by the time one has come this far with these characters one has begun to believe with them that hope is just another species of delusion.

Katherine A. Powers writes a literary column for Boston magazine.