By Keith Banner

Knopf. 262 pp. $23

In an impressive debut novel, Keith Banner succeeds in getting under the skin of his characters, some of whom are possessed with most unsavory passions, and making them fully human.

Far from the conventions of urban centers, Dave Brewer's life in small-town Anderson, Ind., is composed of false fronts he wants to project: all-American family man, churchgoer, skilled golfer and good sport, able provider as son, father and husband. But he is increasingly the prisoner of his obsessive interest in a young boy he first spies at a public pool. "The Life I Lead" follows Dave as he courts his love object, Nathan, and his secret desire eventually consumes him.

This is no easy narrative gambit Banner has taken. The driving force in his story is transgressive same-sex desire that is not in any way "gay"--the gay world of the contemporary city may as well be a million miles from Anderson. Watching gay men on a TV talk show, Dave's wife, Tara, declares, "That is just perverted." At Norris Road Baptist Church, Pastor Lewis shows a videotape of "homosexual gay-pride parades," and Dave decides, "These people were just freaks, I'm sorry." It strikes him as odd that they are "proud of their depravity."

As for his own behavior, Dave has interesting insights. Trying to describe the excitement he feels, the illicit thrill when he looks at Nathan, he admits, "This is what you are supposed to feel at one of those bars, those singles places, this is my affair, I understand." Elsewhere, Dave recognizes that "me wanting me is what I am feeling" and "I need the child in my mind to soothe me out of the boredom of my everyday life."

Banner is careful to fill in his protagonist's psychological makeup, without making it seem a case study. As a boy, Dave was beaten arbitrarily by his father, and more significant, he was sexually molested by a boy 10 years older. Dave is clearly mentally sick, but what passes for sanity in Anderson seems unbalanced, too. For an evening out, Dave's extended family (wife, baby daughter, mother-in-law and father) has the paltry pleasure of choosing between the attractions of Cracker Barrel and Ponderosa. This novel raises the question: Which is more disturbing, nuns with beards in gay parades or repressed sexuality festering into unhealthy desires in an unbearably banal heartland?

The story of Dave's descent into madness is told from varying points of view, and Banner has a real talent for investing each of his characters with a distinct voice, a voice that feels fully lived in. Although there is no doubt distance between the author's life and his characters' experiences--Tara, for example, is mostly concerned with her baby and trips to the mall--there is no trace of condescension in the telling. Their lives matter.

Banner's most striking decision is to give voice to Troy, the boy who molested Dave in his childhood, the starting point for this cycle of abusive desire. "I was the boy . . . teaching the boy I loved more than pizza," recalls Troy, a neighbor whose family moved away abruptly when the boys' sexual affair, coercive on Troy's part and backed by threats of violence, was discovered. In the chapters told from Troy's point of view, Banner indulges a narrative voice given to sensory imagery, as when Troy describes the "smell of oily gears burning inside the clown-faced machinery" at a fair. Troy's voice is a trifle too world-weary, ironic--he is not as fully realized as the other narrators, but his character is by far the greatest mystery.

The adult Troy takes care of the disabled elderly at a nursing home, to which Dave's father, Paul, is eventually consigned. Dave's need to see to the care of his dying father becomes as central to the novel as the child-molesting, and Banner skillfully manipulates the tension between Dave's and Troy's differing ways of coping with Paul. The reader comes to regard all tenderness in its many manifestations as somehow connected.

"The Life I Lead" is not a perfect novel. Dave's psychological profile is perhaps a bit too pat: Banner connects the dots explicitly between Dave's abuse at the hands of his father, his sexual abuse by Troy and his projection of desire onto Nathan. The sympathetic treatment of a child molester will make neither fundamentalist preachers nor gay rights advocates happy. But the author has chosen a difficult subject and invested it fully with empathy, moral ambiguity and even compassion. This is no small achievement for any novel, let alone a literary debut.

Roberto Friedman, arts editor of the Bay Area Reporter.