WONDER BOYS By Michael Chabon Villard. 368 pp. $23 MICHAEL CHABON is so stupendously gifted and accomplished a writer at so early an age that it is tempting, when writing about him and his work, to hold back, to leave some of the superlatives unused, to reserve judgment. So many American writers have been impaled upon those early reviews, their careers wrecked by excesses of praise and the distractions that they bring. Even to think of this happening to Chabon -- a writer not merely of rare skill and wit but of self-evident and immensely appealing generosity -- is painful and thus encourages reticence.

Yet there's no getting around it. With this, his second novel and third book, Chabon leaves no doubt that he is the young star of American letters, "star" not in the current sense of cheap celebrity but in the old one of brightly shining hope. As one who reluctantly but firmly believes that literary fiction no longer contributes significantly to American cultural life, I welcome Chabon as that most unlikely of anachronisms, a serious writer who actually connects.

Chabon's wonderful first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, published seven years ago when he was 24, was followed three years later by an even more accomplished collection of stories, A Model World. In both books Chabon's chief preoccupation was with domestic life and amatory affairs, but he treated these matters with little of the solipsism and self-regard so commonplace among products of the creative-writing assembly line.

Wonder Boys is yet another forward step. More ambitious than either of its predecessors, it attempts to locate and define the place of the writer not merely in a society that regards him as an oddity but also within the murky territory of his own mind and heart. In this sense Wonder Boys is an implacably serious book, but most readers may find themselves losing sight of its serious side because they are laughing so hard.

This, mind you, comes from a reader so inured to humor after three decades of reviewing books that he is the toughest laugh this side of the ghost of Calvin Coolidge. The list of novels of fairly recent vintage that have made me laugh out loud is appallingly short: Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities, William Boyd's A Good Man in Africa, Christopher Buckley's Thank You for Smoking and David Lodge's Changing Places. To this very short list must now be added Wonder Boys, which earned its first chuckle in the opening paragraph and escalated to a long and at times painful succession of guffaws a few pages thereafter.

Wonder Boys is set on a campus that just might be that of the University of Pittsburgh, but it is not an academic novel as the genre is commonly understood and it never falls into the trap of mistaking the campus for the universe. What is important about its narrator, Grady Tripp, is not that he is a teacher but that he is a non-functioning writer, an author of three modestly successful novels who is now hopelessly bogged down in "my fourth novel, or what purported to be my fourth novel, Wonder Boys, which I had promised to {my publisher} during the early stages of the previous presidential administration." His problem is scarcely writer's block, as explained in this glorious passage:

"The problem, if anything, was precisely the opposite. I had too much to write: too many fine and miserable buildings to construct and streets to name and clocktowers to set chiming, too many characters to raise up from the dirt like flowers whose petals I peeled down to the intricate frail organs within, too many terrible genetic and fiduciary secrets to dig up and bury and dig up again, too many divorces to grant, heirs to disinherit, trysts to arrange, letters to misdirect into evil hands, innocent children to slay with rheumatic fever, women to leave unfulfilled and hopeless, men to drive to adultery and theft, fires to ignite at the hearts of ancient houses. It was about a single family and it stood, as of that morning, at two thousand six hundred and eleven pages, each of them revised and rewritten a half-dozen times. And yet for all of those years, and all of those words expended in charting the eccentric paths of my characters through the violent blue heavens I had set them to cross, they had not even reached their zeniths. I was nowhere near the end."

This is a matter of considerable urgency because as Tripp thinks these thoughts he is meeting his editor at the airport. This outrageous creature, whose name is Terry Crabtree, ostensibly is in town to participate in WordFest, wherein the Department of English charges "aspiring writers several hundred dollars for the privilege of meeting and receiving the counsel of a staff of more-or-less well-known writers, along with agents, editors and assorted other New Yorkers with an astonishing capacity for alcohol and gossip." But Crabtree's real aim is to wrench the long overdue manuscript away from Tripp and see if in all that bulk there is actually anything worth publishing.

Thus the basic framework of the comedy is set, although there is room within it for a small explosion of sub-plots. These have to do with Tripp's estranged wife and her family, which he loves; his mistress, Sara Gaskell, wife of the head of the English Department; the black satin jacket worn by Marilyn Monroe at her marriage to Joe DiMaggio, as well as a number of baseball bats swung by the latter on the field of play; a brittle young writing student, James Leer, "a furtive, lurking soul"; a tuba; a large, dead dog; a large, dead snake. ALL OF THESE come together in ways no one except Michael Chabon would want to imagine, but we must be thankful that he did, for the results are uniformly if exhaustingly uproarious. He does humor on the grand scale but also on the small. Readers having an affection for jazz, as Chabon apparently does, are urged to imagine a sublime drummer -- Big Sid Catlett, perhaps, or Jo Jones -- effortlessly grinding out great rolls of thunder and then punctuating them with perfect little rimshots. Thus: "I would not only never want to belong to any club that would have me for a member -- if elected I would wear street shoes onto the squash court and set fire to the ballroom curtains." Or: "Many of the great hair-dos of bygone ages . . . survived to this day in isolated pockets of Pittsburgh." Or: "All male friendships are essentially quixotic: they last only so long as each man is willing to polish the shaving-bowl helmet, climb on his donkey, and ride off after the other in pursuit of illusive glory and questionable adventure."

Within the wit of this last is to be found, of course, a kernel of clear-eyed understanding. The mysteries of friendship among men are almost as central to this novel as is the "feeling of apartness" with which, Chabon argues, writers are necessarily blessed and afflicted. It is an important sign of his prodigious maturity that Chabon can write not merely comedy for its own sake but also comedy that draws us into darker places of more ambiguous meaning. When he evokes, at the end, the image toward which the entire book has been working -- "wonder boys, their hearts filled with the dread and mystery of the books they believe themselves destined to write" -- we know for certain that he is not joking.

One cautionary aside is in order. Chabon is now in his early thirties. He has published a first-person coming-of-age novel, a book of stories many of which are narrated in the first person, and a first-person novel about writing. As has already been said, he is not a narcissistic writer, but there are signs here of a familiar pattern. Though Chabon has demonstrated a keen understanding of other people's minds and lives, thus far his preoccupation has been with fictional explorations of his own. It is time for him to move on, to break away from the first person and explore larger worlds. His apprenticeship is done; it has been brilliant, but the books as yet unwritten are the ones in which we will learn just how far this singular writer can go.

Meantime we have this novel, which by all means and for all reasons we must celebrate. Wonder boys, wonder book.