Laura Pedersen has assembled quite a biography. She has a finance degree from NYU's Stern School of Business and was the youngest person to gain a seat on the American Stock Exchange. President Clinton named her one of 10 Outstanding Young Americans in 1994, and she's written two nonfiction books about career and finance, as well as hosting a finance show on the Oxygen channel when she's not performing stand-up comedy. Now her debut novel has won Story Line Press' Three Oaks Prize for Fiction. Could life be better?

Unfortunately, Pedersen doesn't seem to have enjoyed much time to study the craft of fiction writing before dashing off Going Away Party. The comic story involves a 20-year-old college student, Jess, standing at the brink of adulthood in her small Michigan hometown. Her sprawling Catholic family goes camping, leaving her home alone to study for a calculus exam. Within hours, Denny, a 50-year-old scientist, happens by. She invites him in. He isn't a total stranger--he's the substitute weatherman on the local news--but he is still kind of weird, and pathetic because his wife just died. Jess is lonely herself. She recently broke up with her boyfriend and doesn't relish the thought of a week alone with her math book. This unlikely couple embarks upon a serious bender: drinking, eating, hurling and talking, talking, endlessly talking.

In theory, this premise is full of promise. In reality, however, reading this book is like getting hit over the head repeatedly with a blunt object.

But it didn't have to be this way. Perhaps Pedersen was too busy to learn how to fine-tune her writing, but what excuse do her editors have? The book is rife with unnecessary underlining and just too damn many words. The characters can't just say something, they have to say it "politely" or "seriously" or "wryly" or "incredulously."

The action is often overexplained: "He shook his head from side to side." And the writing insinuates that the reader is a moron, as when Jess' dad expresses his anger to her mother: "'I've told your son to make a new top for that aquarium at least ten times.' When Gene is displeased he automatically turns over his half ownership of the children to Joan so they become your sons and daughters." The story itself seems pointless, except for showcasing Pedersen's cache of bad jokes.

Story Line is a respected regional small press in Ashland that publishes books, especially poetry collections, that probably never would have seen ink otherwise. But when they slap an award on a novel, they are staking their reputation on it. They may be limited by the quality of the entries, but the chosen book had better be worthy--if not, then the editors had better fix it.

Going Away Party

by Laura Pedersen (Story Line Press, 315 pages, $22) Visit Story Line Press at .