AVOIDANCE

By Michael Lowenthal

Graywolf. 256 pp. Paperback, $16

In Avoidance, Michael Lowenthal's disturbing, elegant and powerful second novel, Jeremy Stull is a graduate student falling in love -- emphasis on falling. The object of his affection is Max Connor, a brassy Manhattanite with an Alphabet City attitude. His baseball cap blares "BLAH BLAH BLAH," punctuating a slacker-cool ethos that lifts Jeremy's somber, academic spirits. Max is aloof and ironically witty, but underneath that well-cultivated veneer of ennui, he's wounded by life, which only feeds Jeremy's charitable instincts. And then there are the little things, like Max's way of misusing words like "apocryphal" and "exponential" to describe things he likes, or the "xylophonic stomach" of his body, which Jeremy lusts after. What's not to like? This: Max is 14 years old.

The relationship, with all its illicit and repulsive undertones, plays out at Ironwood, a Vermont summer camp where wealthy East Coasters can purchase a few months' worth of authentic rusticity for their well-heeled boys -- provided they ascend the lengthy waiting list. Jeremy's own formative years at Ironwood have shaped and strengthened him, and he's risen up its counseling ranks to become the camp's second-in-command, and a little jealous of Charlie Moss, who's first. Though Jeremy is increasingly swamped by his Harvard dissertation -- a study of banishment in Amish communities -- Ironwood remains close to his heart. "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," he explains.

Sexual attraction to those boys had never been an issue for Jeremy. But with Max, a switch flips. The boy is all but orphaned; his mother is absent and dying, and his father killed himself two years before. Max's own sexuality is cryptic: It's not clear at first if he is being flirtatious or boyishly playful. Regardless, Jeremy's mentorship morphs into something that, to him, seems like love. Hearing Max explain his father's suicide, Jeremy tells what he did: "I clutched him tighter, this ragged bruise of a boy, and without wanting to, wanting desperately not to, I imagined kissing his trembly lips. Then I imagined more than a kiss."

Avoidance, written in Jeremy's voice, has the solemn tone of a confession. In a year when the front pages have been sick with Catholic sexual-abuse scandals, Lowenthal has excellent or horrific timing, depending on how you look at it. Either way, he's thrown down one hell of a gauntlet; he's written a novel whose sympathetic hero is a potential child molester. But Avoidance isn't so much a dossier on a sexual predator as it is a study in morality. Jeremy has a loathsome urge for Max, what he calls "a hypoglycemic panic for his skin." But if he doesn't act on it, is he still loathsome?

Lowenthal's particular talent as a novelist is exploring gray areas with wisdom and confidence. In his fine first novel, The Same Embrace, he deftly balanced issues of homosexuality, Orthodox Judaism and family. Here, in a strange but successful cross of Lolita and An American Tragedy, his language gracefully renders Jeremy's self-immolation. Nearly every metaphor and simile speaks to violence and illness: a man has hands "as broad as Michigan ax blades," a tangle of felled trees is "as disconcerting as broken bones," a horse has a "wrecking-ball hoof," and Jeremy's most potent fantasy is "being able to unzip Max's skin and reach inside, to rearrange his wires, defuse his bomb." The summer-camp setting is useful as more than just a way to unite men and boys. Lowenthal presents Ironwood as verdant and peaceful, but he also gives it to us as a place suffused with rain, vomit, mosquitoes and rot.

For solace, Jeremy turns to his studies of the Amish, whose lives of asceticism, self-sacrifice and outsiderhood echo and underscore the main narrative. Jeremy corresponds with a woman who has been officially shunned by her community for questionable reasons. "You have to ask," he writes her, "how wrong was what you did? Did you choose yourself over what seemed right, or did you choose what seemed right over yourself?"

He's writing as much for himself as for her, and the narrative shifts between Ironwood and the Amish give Avoidance a sinuous, double-helix grace. The summer camp, it becomes clear, was never as perfect and morally upstanding as Jeremy wanted to believe it was. Max may simply be a manipulative boy play-acting as an adult. And setting aside whatever legal transgressions may occur, Jeremy is mainly concerned with internal, moral transgression -- as is Lowenthal. "We're always this close to tragedy, and to love," as Jeremy puts it.

Certainly, not everybody will agree with that sentiment. For many reasonable people, love and tragedy are wholly separate things, and the idea of a grown man's sexual attraction to a pubescent boy presents no gray area or moral quandary whatsoever. For them, Avoidance will appear to be little more than empty provocation -- or worse, an apologetic. But any reader willing to meet Lowenthal halfway can appreciate what he's accomplished. Disarmingly but beautifully, he's explored the blurry line between selfless love and selfish lust. *

Mark Athitakis is a critic and journalist living in San Francisco.