AvoidanceMichael LowenthalGraywolf Press, $16, 256 pp.
The best novel that has come or is likely to come out of the Catholic sexual child-abuse scandal appeared late last year, and it happens to be a work by a Jew in which no Catholic appears. Michael Lowenthal’s only contact with the Roman Catholic Church, so far as I know, is that he teaches creative writing at a Catholic university, Boston College.
Not to be coy, Avoidance is neither a novel with a Catholic setting nor a roman à clef nor some kind of allegory. The setting is a boys summer camp, and religion is never mentioned in the story. Yet Lowenthal recreates with exceptional honesty and sympathy a poignant human drama of which during the past year the Catholic Church has offered more than its share of examples.
Jeremy is a graduate student writing his doctoral thesis on the Amish educational system (the subplot of this novel), but his emotional home country is not academe but Ironwood, the Vermont summer camp where he is assistant director. When Jeremy was just eight, his father died in an industrial accident. With some of the insurance money, Jeremy’s mother, though her circumstances were straitened, sent him to Ironwood "to give me roots." The roots grew so deep that Ironwood became more than Jeremy’s second home: it became the only real world for him. Others were homesick, but not Jeremy:
I was campsick, miserably so. And though it’s sometimes embarrassing to explain, and draws puzzled looks in the "grown-up" world, that’s more or less how I’ve felt ever since. What others adjudge "real life" is for me a postponement of what my heart says is righteously real: summer with a hundred boys in Vermont.
Jeremy is nurtured, inspirited, enlivened, caught up, swept along by the whole of it: the beauty of the woods, the vigor of the life, the songs, the jokes, the lingo, the lore, the fraternity, and, perhaps most of all, the vicarious paternity. Ironwood is a place where, in a strong, simple, and manly way, people care. It also happens to resemble, more than anything else in this world or the next, a seminary.
Avoidance begins with a classic summer-camp accident. One of the boys, Max, breaks his wrist. Jeremy drives him to the clinic and is surprised by the sexual attraction he feels.
...just as one’s affection for a junior-high orchestra has less to do with its musicality than its guilelessness, I was drawn to boys without exactly wanting them. My attraction was that of anyone who works with kids: a blood-thick, save-them-from-drowning passion. What schoolteacher isn’t stirred in some part by desire? What soccer coach-what parent-isn’t? To put up with the endless rigors of nurturing, you have to be at least a little smitten.
But sex? No. Definitely not with kids. To be honest, not with hardly anyone. There had been three or four women in college; a man, just once, furtively. In the jungle of desire, I played dead.
In the jungle of desire, I played dead. Lowenthal’s style in this first-person novel is mostly an easily flowing interior monologue, punctuated by remembered dialogue. When he rises to lyricism, it is usually in descriptions of the beauty of Vermont. He dedicates this novel to his camp counselors, and, between times, his novel becomes a novel of place with sentences like "Wet, windless mornings turned to wet, windless noons as the sun grudged its rut behind the clouds." Every so often, however, the usual interior monologue yields a lapidary line like In the jungle of desire, I played dead. Reading Lowenthal can be like sparring with a partner who dances around and never stops joking but every so often pops you one right in the kisser.
So, Jeremy is interested in Max in a forbidden way, but is Max interested in Jeremy? And does that matter? Would that make it OK? Lowenthal builds this dilemma into a novel by slowly playing out information about Max, whose father was a suicide, whose mother is disturbed, and whose grandparents-who have sent him to Ironwood-are in far-off Hawaii coping with grandpa’s stroke. At times, Max seems to be interested in Jeremy, who can’t stop thinking about him; but Max’s immense need for caring, matching Jeremy’s capacity to care, might too easily be mistaken for an emotion he does not feel.
The suspense of Max’s story is extended by the interruptions of the Amish subplot. Like Ironwood, the Amish community of Peach Blossom, Pennsylvania, is self-contained and emotionally intense. Beulah, whose husband has broken the moral code and is being "shunned," chooses to lose the community she loves and the only life she has known rather than leave him. Her forlorn condition is a kind of warning of what transgression can cost the transgressor.
Avoidance approaches its climax when Max confesses to Jeremy that Charlie, the camp director, Jeremy’s friend since boyhood, has sexually molested him. Should Jeremy call the police? On the following morning, Max tells Jeremy "What I said? Last night? Just forget it?" and a moment later: "Maybe it didn’t even happen."
But it did happen; and when Jeremy tells Caroline, the camp nurse and his best friend, she flies into action. The police enlist Max in a plan to entrap Charlie, but the boy is afraid Charlie may show up before the cops are ready for him. He turns to Jeremy.
"What if Charlie comes back?"
"In the middle of the night? With the other campers around?"
"But what if he does?"
Max listed sideways, onto me. The way a kitten will stretch to stay in a patch of sun, his body followed when I inched away.
When my daughter was small, she used to lean into me like that if she was nervous about some stranger we were talking to. Lowenthal is a brilliant observer of the subliminal gestures that carry so much meaning.
"Can I sleep with you?" [Max] asked. "In your tent?"
His cast [around the broken wrist] weighed thrillingly on my thigh.
"No," I said, with a vehemence to match my body’s instinctive yes."
Jeremy finds someplace else for Max to hide.
Charlie flees before he is apprehended. When the dust settles, Jeremy resigns from Ironwood. Sometimes he imagines Charlie "pumping gas on the graveyard shift in some godforsaken outpost" and is vindictively glad. Other times, he imagines him "saving lives somewhere, driving an ambulance in Kosovo or Kenya. What a shame if all his caring went to waste." The Amish-who have let Jeremy deeper into their lives than they intended-ask him to leave, and he does. On the last page of the novel, the power fails in Harvard’s Widener Library. Even Jeremy’s computer seems to kick him out. Yet this is somehow a novel with a happy ending.
It is a poor excuse for a gay novel, someone might object, that turns entirely on a refusal to seduce, but just that is what lifts Avoidance out of the category of gay novel. As the summer comes to its end, Max, like the Jeremy of old, is feeling campsick. He will be too old for Ironwood next summer. He has no real home to return to. On a last, starlit night, he looks forward to just visiting Jeremy-maybe at the camp but, hey, maybe down in Cambridge: "We’d have a blast. Just us two."
In moments like this, Michael Lowenthal makes me think of the novelist Michael Cunningham-not the Cunningham of The Hours but the younger Cunningham of A Home at the End of the World. This is only Lowenthal’s second novel, but he has the talent to go as far as Cunningham has gone. He has the same eye and ear for the interiority of "families," whatever shape they take. He has the same uncanny ability to fuse a place and a cast of characters in his reader’s mind. He has the same lyricism on tap. And he has, in addition, the abovementioned left jab.
Having quoted generously from this novel already, I will not quote what Jeremy says to Max in their big nonseduction scene. Let me, instead, return to my beginning. Lowenthal puts truth in Jeremy’s mouth when he has him say: "To put up with the rigors of nurturing, you have to be a little smitten." In its sleepwalking wisdom, the Catholic Church has found a way to harness a lot of otherwise free-floating smittenness and turn it into usable nurture. Some of the nurturers, yes, have been gay. Some have had something much worse to cope with than the minority sexual orientation. To quote Jeremy again, what a shame if all their caring went to waste. Smitten caregivers have to watch out. Avoidance must be their polestar. The forgotten majority of them have been masters of avoidance. Without intending it, I presume, Michael Lowenthal has written a novel about them, the novel that none of them is likely ever to write. Boston College should award him a bonus.