by Michael Stein

Sag Harbor: The Permanent Press, 1995
175pp., $22.00
ISBN: 1 877946 57 5

Review by Chris Lott

Capsule Review: Probabilities is one of the best and most memorable
books of the year. Michael Stein has at once managed to evoke and conquer
the specter of Holden Caufield by creating a narrator that is similarly youthful,
intelligent, authentic and wise but also radically opposite in his moments of
childlike naiveté and disinterest in rebellion.
Bottom line: run to the nearest bookstore or library and get this book!

It is almost impossible to speak of Probabilities without speaking of Salinger's famous creation because there are so many similarities in effect if not in fact. The main character, Will Sterling, is sixteen years old, exceedingly bright and undeniably authentic. Yet reading this book evokes a feeling of nostalgia similar to that raised by Catcher in the Rye because Sterling's naiveté lies in those areas which are directly opposite most adult perceptions of the youth of today. Truancy, rebellion and drug use is far from Sterling's mind despite contemporary media portrayals of youth to the contrary… but he is still very concerned with other real issues of adolescence: his widowed mother's different boyfriends, his first real girlfriend, being the only white player on the basketball team, his hidden desire for a 40 year old woman who has befriended him, sexual experimentation, etc. What sets this book apart from many others I have read in a similar vein is Stein's ability to accurately recreate the feelings of adolescence without being patronizing or repetitive and create a character that is of appeal to adults in a positive manner beyond merely recognizing traits they once had. In fact, Stein manages to depict Will Sterling in such a way that we can at once sigh with relief that we are beyond those times and grimace at all of the characteristics that have remained with us despite our efforts to ignore them!

Academically gifted—he calls his fellow students in advanced math "The Geniuses"-- Sterling sees everything in terms of mathematical probabilities and is often quite disgruntled when things don't work out that way. Throughout the book he tries to operate logically and is continually disappointed: his basketball team loses to a team that is statistically inferior, a small poker scam he has with a friend almost goes awry when the victim starts to catch on, etc. At one point his mother's boyfriend has taken him to the track to try betting on horses and putting his math to work:

"We both lost. I told Lester I was broke so we left. All that I knew about mathematics was pointless. Probability theory should have told me that."

Coming to terms with the often illogical ways in which our individual lives work is the main theme of this book, though to characterize it in such weighty terms runs the risk of making the book sound overbearing when it is actually very funny, playful and inventive.

Finally Sterling realizes that rather than try to figure out the mathematics of life, he should be living it and remain open to the fact that there is no formula to sum it all up. By the end of the book he has accepted this (as much as one can accept it) and finally admitted that he is in love, that most illogical of emotions:

"Logic didn't work for me; confessing was the hard part. … Even though confessions are supposed to make you feel better, they don't, as any criminal will tell you. At the same time that you are confessing, you're swearing to yourself that you'll never be in this situation again, you'll never repeat that stupid mistake.

I have Sara, her blast of love only minutes old, and I keep searching for things I can predict."

Michael Stein has created a book with enough truth and humor—and little enough overt message-making and moralizing—that it should appeal to just about everyone.

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