Richard Price's first novel, "The Wanderers" - now transformed into a movie opening today at area theaters - has a high literary voltage. The effect of its neon-lit prose is vivid, but not necessarily satisfying.

This colorful, overheated idiom tends to create unbearable pressures on Price's stories of teen-age lust, bravado and gang rivalry. One caroms back and forth between outrageous and violent episodes, registering the alternately comic and brutal impacts without feeling particularly pleased or enlightened by the battering.

The movie adaptation achieves a vivid, fast-paced pictorial representation without solving the structural problems created by Price's hit-and-run approach to fiction. There's rarely a slack moment in this episodic recollection of semi-tough, sex-obsessed, ignorant high school boys in the Bronx, circa 1963, and the film provides a generous showcase for new faces. Nevertheless, "The Wanderers" is a well-made movie that leaves a so-what impression.

Despite similarities in subject matter and motivation, "The Wanderers" fails to evoke the pathos of "The Last Picture Show," American Graffiti" or the upcoming "Breaking Away." Perhaps the New York City teen culture of the early '60s is less apt to inspire sympathetic identification thant the small-town setting of "Graffiti."

Keeping faith with Price's flamboyant, incendiary style, director Philip Kaufman - who collaborated on the screenplay with his wife, Rose - inflates the naturalistic social setting into an almost phantasmagoric spectacle that defies belief and overwhelms human interest. Like the book, the movie alternates episodes of raucous adolescent cameraderie and sex comedy with episodes impending or exploding teen-age gang violence. The highs keep coming, and the movie maintains a headlong sense of momentum, but the radical shifts in tone prevent if from finding a confident story-telling method.

Kaufman imposes this unbalanced mood right from teh beginning. The principal charater, Richie Gennao, a leader of an Italian-American gang called The Wanderers (in homage to a rock 'n' roll hit of 1961, "The Wanderer" by Dion and The Belmonts), is discovered groping with his girlfriend Despite in her house. Their exertions are deliberately burlesqued by having a TV set tuned a Three Stooges movie.

Richie leaves Despie in Disarray when he hear a whistle of alarm, signalling a Wanderer in distress. Joey, a cocky, hotheaded member of the gang, has offended the Fordham Baldies, a bigger, older gang distinguished by their aggressive loutishness, black leather jackets and shaved skulls. Fleeing from the Baldies, Joey is soon joined by Richie and a few other Wanderers.

Finally cornered in a cul-de-sac, the Wanderers appear destined for massacre. But they are spared by the miraculous appearance of a young Samson, a new kid in the neighborhood named Perry who drives off the Baldies.

When Perry disappears, you wonder if he, the Baldies and the near-rumble were supposed to be figments of someone's limagination, maybe Joey's. But no, Perry soon rematerializes and agrees to become a Wanderer. So while you have to accept Perry as a flesh-and-blood character, you can't accept the circumstances in which he was introduced.

Unlike "Teh Warriors," which imposed a fantastic mood from the outset, "The Wanderers' keeps ricocheting between the naturalistic and fantastic. Ultimately, neither realm of depiction seems credible.

The most puzzling jump occurs when the Wanderers try to follow a girl they've just been attracted to on the street. Trailing her car, they somehow get lost in a tunnel. When they emerge, day has mysteriously become night, and they're lost in the fog-shrouded domain of the Ducky Boys, an undersized Irish-American gang even more vicious than the Baldies. Although this detour seems utterly fantastic, a fight ensues in which the stalwart Perry absorbs an apparently real injury, since he sports a cast on his arm for the remainder of the story.

Despite the bovious care taken to recreate the era - including two dozen rock 'n' roll songs - only one interlude has a powerful evocative quality: a shocked, saddened group of people watching TV reports of the shooting of President Kennedy through a store window. These brief documentary inserts tend to shame the whole period illusion the movie has been striving for.Suddenly, historical reality intrudes in a way that reminds you of the triviality of the fiction you're watching. It also triggers memories that can easily overwhelm Price's memory album for the duration of the show.

If the scenario were more concentrated, it might be easier to appreciate the pathos in the way Richie is locked into a lifetime of adolescent dependency. (Robert Mulligan's film version of Price's second novel, "Bloodbrothers," suffers from identifcal weaknesses. It whips up so much egregious emotional frenzy that the truly devastating revelations about family and generational conflicts barely emerge from the surrounding rubble of hysteria.)

Unlike Mulligan, Kaufman does succeed in getting discreetly modulated and entertaining performances from his cast. Ken Wahl, Tony Ganios and Jim Youngs are wonderful finds as three of the principal Wanderers - Richie, Perry and Buddy, respectively - and John Friedrich's feisty Joey is so good that I'd love to see him get a crack at playing a little hothead like Maggio in "From Here to Eternity."

Wahl looks like he could do a terrific Elvis Presley, and the beefy, easygoing, sleepy-eyed Ganios could rival Sylvester Stallone as a roughhewn matinee idol. Youngs, whose delicate features and subtle style remind one instantly of Christopher Walken, turns out ot be the Younger brother of not Walken but John Savage, who costarred with Walken and Robert De Niro in "The Deer Hunter."

Karen Allen, a local girl who got her first major break in "Animal House," continues to consolidate her reputation as one of the most photogenic and appealing new actresses on the Amercian screen. Toni Kalem makes an impressive debut as Richie's glaring, possessive girlfriend, and the thickset character actor Dolph Sweet is splendid as her mobster pop, a softspoken intimidator.

Kaufman's casting scouts also emerged with a magnificent new menace, the obese, hulking, fabulously named Erland van Lidth de Jeude, a computer analyst and amateur wrestler who plays the scariest Baldie, Terror. An imposing nightmare at 66 and 425 pounds, he deserves to be recruited immediately for the next James Bond movie. CAPTION: Picture 1, Linda Manz and Erland van Lidth de Jeude in "The Wanderers."; Picture 2, From left: Jim Youngs, Ken Wahl, John Friedrich and Tony Ganios