THE FINAL CLUB By Geoffrey Wolff Knopf. 370 pp. $19.95

WHAT OSCAR WILDE reputedly said of the Bible, we might also say of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, This Side of Paradise: When I think of all the harm that book has done, I despair of writing anything to equal it. The harm Fitzgerald inflicted on countless young men was to describe in demonically idyllic tones undergraduate life at Princeton University just before the First World War. Geoffrey Wolff, author of an enduring memoir of his father, The Duke of Deception, has given us a hero, Nathaniel Auerbach Clay, who also reads Scott Fitzgerald before he goes to Princeton. Unlike Fitzgerald, he does not get elected to one of the "eating clubs" where Princeton's undergraduate social life centers. But this is the 1950s, and when word gets out that most of those excluded from the clubs are the few Jews Princeton admits, the burgeoning scandal forces the clubs to admit Nathaniel, who is Jewish on his mother's side.

So this is Nathaniel's touching story -- from his departure from Seattle for Princeton on the transcontinental train to his 20th reunion. What Nathaniel first encounters at Princeton are two "rich boys" -- as Fitzgerald would undoubtedly describe them -- who become his roommates and who are finally instrumental in getting him to go along with Princeton's exclusionary club system, so that he is admitted, albeit belatedly, to the most renowned of the eating clubs, Ivy. Nathaniel is an outsider, who, like most outsiders, wants to enter that seemingly charmed circle of self-assured young men and despises himself for giving in to that base desire. The Princeton club system, as Wolff explains it, "had begun in 1879 as an arrangement whereby ten boys, affronted by a food fight in the dining halls well-called Commons, established the Ivy Club, and with it a process of selection whereby ten boys rejected two thousand; this had evolved into an evil (Nathaniel wouldn't have used 'evil' yet) whereby two thousand excluded ten."

Drawn to his two roommates, who also become his mentors, Nathaniel is captivated by their grace and self-confidence. Pownall Hamm and Booth Tarkington Griggs are lineal decendants of Anson Hunter in Scott Fitzgerald's masterful short story, "The Rich Boy." It is no disservice to Wolff to quote Fitzgerald, for his ghost inhabits the pages of The Final Club, and Wolff pays him homage time and again. "Let me tell you about the very rich," Fitzgerald writes. "They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are truthful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, especially in their hearts, that they are better than we are."

Nathaniel spends much of his life trying to understand how they are different from him. He joins the crew because Pownall and Booth are both oarsmen, and succeeds in outdoing them. Wolff, by the way, writes movingly and lyrically and wholly convincingly about the grandeur and servitude of rowing a racing shell. Like many boys who have never rowed before, like high school boys who didn't graduate from elite prep schools, Nathaniel outstrips the "rich boys" because he is just as smart, just as gifted as they are but tries harder. In studying their manners he becomes identical to them -- except of course at his core, where self-doubt nags at the very notion of superiority over others. As an outsider it is his fate always to imitate consciously those who act the way they do precisely because they are unconscious of their behavior. AT TIMES, reading the dialogue of freshmen boys meeting freshmen girls under the clock at the now defunct Biltmore Hotel, I could hardly believe that young men and women talked that way, or acted so badly towards one another. But I must confess that, although I did not go to Princeton as did Geoffrey Wolff, I did go to college in the '50s, went to jazz clubs like Nick's and Eddie Condon's, danced to Cole Porter at La Rue's, and probably sounded just as naive, as arrogant, and as sadly foolish as Wolff's reckless young men.

As the book progresses, Nathaniel the freshman grows wiser, or at least more sophisticated, as freshmen do, resigns from Ivy Club and gathers together into a "final club" his own elite, who are supposed to rise above Princeton's legendary social satyriasis. Yet, 10 years later, Nathaniel asks his final clubmates, "Why do {Princeton} tigers want to be such cubs, jokers, playboys? Back home I should have been more serious." By this time Nathaniel has become a writer who lives in Vermont, has an affair, becomes separated from his wife, and is hard where his roommates are soft. The roommates lead careless lives, though both at the end are more honest with themselves than Nathaniel. Feeling "such terror at the prospect of being fooled, of seeming a fool," Nathaniel plays it safe. What he learned at Princeton was "the principle of discrimination," and he never seems free himself of the very values he so deeply wants to reject. He inevitably puts himself in the way of rejection.

The book ends on a violent note of tragedy, for which, somehow, Princeton is to blame. The children of these cubs, jokers and playboys are victims of wanting to be, in spite of themselves, like their parents. But while it's hard at times to sympathize quite as deeply as we are meant to with the travails of Nathaniel and Pownall and Booth, they never give up trying to be better than they are. Unlike Tom and Daisy Buchanan in Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Nathaniel and Pownall and Booth never simply retreat into their "vast carelessness" and "let other people clean up the mess they had made." James Chace, the author of the memoir "What We Had," has just completed a book on American foreign policy after the Cold War.