THERE are first novels writers can't seem to match -- Ralph Ellison's ''Invisible Man'' is the archetype here. There's the posthumous first novel -- John Kennedy Toole's ''Confederacy of Dunces,'' for example -- that makes you wonder what might have been. There are fireplace firsts, books that young writers, sometimes wisely, push into the flames instead of into print. Harry Crews had four novels rejected before publishing ''The Gospel Singer.'' (''Burn it, son,'' one of Crews's writing teachers told him about an early manuscript. ''Fire's a great refiner.'') Contemporary first novels are tougher calls. You weigh the chance of discovering a terrific new voice against the fear of plunking down $24 for an apprentice work. It's safer to wait a few novels, for a reputation to grow. But there's nothing like getting in early.
No need to wait on Lucia Nevai. Her novel, SERIOUSLY (Little, Brown, $23.95), is full of elements that might be found in any first novel: a yearning young narrator who's a bit at sea; a tragic family history; a brush with romance; a discovery of vocation. Its protagonist, Tamara Johanssen, has landed in Dustin, a small town in upstate New York. She's on the rebound from a life lived recklessly and demolished early by her crazy mother, who burned down the family's house, killing herself and Tamara's father and younger sister. Tamara's story unfolds episodically. Each chapter focuses on one or two people she has known: the cranky couple who run the local insurance agency; her older sister, Nora, who is a TV producer; her gentlemanly lover, Boz; her trashy but proud neighbor, Glorine. The novel skips back and forth in time, building cumulatively and almost effortlessly, until we arrive at a moment that upends Fellini's ''8 1/2,'' placing Tamara at the center of a group of ex-lovers and admirers. Along the way, Nevai delivers pleasures both large and small in sly, lively prose. She has a neat ability to make her descriptive sentences do double duty as jokes: ''There was Henry in his hat out in back of both our stores, looking for something to take apart and never put back together.'' She has a sure sense of metaphor. (Girls press themselves against a wall until they are ''flat as stickers''; an economy car sounds ''as if the same motor were used in blenders.'') ''There was something sprightly in the technique,'' Tamara says of a drawing she admires. This assured novel -- the author has also published two previous story collections -- is sprightly and then some. Nevai's voice has wisdom and charm, and with ''Seriously'' she announces a large talent. It will be interesting to see where it takes her.