Graywolf 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...