A BOY IN WINTER

By Maxine Chernoff

Crown. 256 pp. $22

By Barbara Lazear Ascher, whose most recent book is "Dancing in the Dark: Romance, Yearning, and the Search for the Sublime."

Maxine Chernoff's poetry is showing. Author of four previous novels and poetry collections, Chernoff brings her poetic gift for sharp observation and the pithy, telling phrase to her new novel, "A Boy in Winter."

Iris Murdoch observed that the line between good and evil is a thin one that we cross every day. That crossing is called living our lives. "A Boy in Winter" brings the concept home in ways so domestic that the author makes the reader feel dangerously unbalanced, slipping easily either way.

The situation is credible and familiar: a single (not by choice) mother doing her best to raise a lovable boy (Danny, age 11) who, though adored, is unsupervised during the hours his mother must work. Nine years previously, the boy's father walked out in that particular narcissistic haze through which only the actor sees clearly. "Alex smiled at me when he said he was leaving, like he was giving me a present," Nancy, the sometime narrator, writes of her former husband. "But my freedom wasn't a gift. I was still in love."

The tenacity of that love brings with it all the complexities of familial ties. Nancy had married a man as blindly self-involved as her own mother, giving a not-unusual twist to Freud's dictum that we marry the person as much like our parent of the opposite sex as we can stand. She loves both of them beyond any reason the reader can comprehend--exactly as love works in "real" life. One can watch, one can ponder, but the course of love is one even its traveler cannot explain. Although remarkable, the story that unfolds from this domestic base takes on the grace of the inevitable.

One afternoon, Danny, at home alone, is visited by a neighbor and playmate, Eddie, who brings the bow and arrow with which his father, Frank, is teaching the boys to hunt. Hyperactive Eddie (clearly suffering from the catchall disorder ADD, but bless the author for not saying so), who consistently acts out his own family's chaos, strings the arrow and points it at Danny, and then they switch roles. As often actually happens when weapons are in the hands of children, an innocent becomes a murderer.

The novel is strongest when Nancy explores "evil, whether it's a force in nature or just in us." Hers is a character rich in sexual and maternal love, both encompassing large-hearted forgiveness. As a creator of greeting cards with "blooming sunsets, overweight cats, cornucopia for Thanksgiving, ancient maps for bon voyage," she feels her "fraudulence" and wonders, "Will I ever be happy enough to repress it again? Will life allow me this necessary treason?" No. What life allows her is growth and the green beginnings of knowledge. It is this path that offers the book's finest passion.

The novel falters when the narration becomes Danny's. Although any author who dares the literary leap into another age and gender deserves applause, to take on the voice of a child immediately invites comparison with the greats who have done so before, such as William Faulkner as Benjy, Roddy Doyle as Paddy Clark, Harper Lee as Scout. What was and remains remarkable about these voices is that they make us willing to enter realms where the adult ego hesitates to go. Childhood, after all, is the greatest of romantic fictions created around powerlessness. The reader willingly follows only if the voice that calls is too seductive to ignore.

Danny's credibility relies too heavily on the grammar rather than the soul of childhood. He presents himself as empathetic when children are essentially egocentric. It is within their nature and crucial to their survival that they are so. Danny notes, "Sometimes at school we'd play this game when we did our writing assignments. First, we'd tell a story from our point of view. Then we'd choose someone else in the story and tell it from theirs." Sadly, this part of the story takes on the quality of just such an assignment. And, as with Eddie's "pretending" to shoot Danny and then Danny's taking a turn at the "pretending," someone's bound to suffer.

So, sadly, does this otherwise powerful novel, which for the most part shines with its author's luminous insights into three generations and the intricate web woven of their love--gossamer that both supports and imprisons.