Chronicling the lives of four tormented youths, 21-year-old author Rice's earnestly overwritten debut novel flails wildly and suffers from an identity crisis as awkward and vivid as that of his soul-seared characters. Yet the book offers an intriguing, complex story, a hard-nosed, lyrical, teenage take on Peyton Place set in contemporary New Orleans. The tangle of a plot grows weedlike when former childhood friends enter high school and find their loyalties have dramatically shifted. Popular, budding bulimic Meredith Ducote is a closet alcoholic whose diaries brim with morose aphorisms on her wretched life; Greg Darby and Brandon Charbonnet are boisterously homophobic high school jocks; and Stephen Conlin, whose father committed suicide, is the sensitive homosexual boy who quickly becomes the victim of cruelty and derision from the school's popular crowd, led by Greg and Brandon. But the two bullies are covering up a painful childhood secret in their persecution of Stephen, a secret Meredith knows. Before the novel reveals this secret during the overwrought climax set during a devastating hurricane, one character dies, another has an emotional breakdown, a parent is institutionalized, a gay bar is bombed by a militant hate group, a concealed paternity is discovered and several families are broken up. Rice is sensitive to the emotional undercurrents that compel teenagers to both mask and wallow in their intense feeling, but the atmosphere of juvenile angst that pervades the novel is as gluey and suffocating as a hot summer on the bayou. 20-city author tour. (Aug.) FYI: The author is the son of novelist Anne Rice and poet Stan Rice, which no doubt is why the name ""Rice"" dominates the book's jacket.