RYAN BOUDINOT'S SHORT STORIES, especially those collected in 2006's The Littlest Hitler, are populated with quiet people who are booby-trapped with some sort of freakish hang-up. (The word "pervert" often comes to mind when reading his fiction.)

His new book is a debut novel titled Misconception, which begins with what is possibly the best opening chapter of a novel in 2009—a quiet high-school student named Cedar brings a slide of his own semen to study in biology class—and grimly marches forward to a disastrous climax. The book is narrated by Cedar and his first girlfriend, Kat, in a suitably confusing mesh of voices: Some passages are taken from a high-school memoir written by an adult Kat in a younger Cedar's point of view, but the change of voice from one perspective to another is so subtle as to be nonexistent in some places.

Much of Misconception's central conceit, especially the lackadaisical push and feverishly horny pull of early romance between Kat and Cedar, is remarkably warm for Boudinot, but other elements feel unexplored. And Misconception's climax is completely unearned, a slathering of melodrama that feels uncomfortable in Boudinot's terse, incredulous language.

Misconception came just after the birth of Boudinot's first child, inspiring, Boudinot said in an interview, a more responsible worldview. It's a flawed novel, but it represents a huge step forward in maturity from the flashy nihilism of Hitler.