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Michael Lowenthal
Saint Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2002.
$16.00, 266 pages, ISBN 1-55597-367-1.

Georges-Claude Guilbert
Université de Rouen

Michael Lowenthal teaches creative writing at Boston College. He is a very busy author, who has edited various books and published numerous short stories, essays and reviews all over the place. His first novel, The Same Embrace (1998), deals with Jonathan and Jacob Rosenbaum, twins who dramatically drift apart. One of the brothers is gay and comes out, as the other turns to Orthodox Judaism and goes to an Israeli Yeshiva. The Same Embrace craftily explores the notion of Jewish-American identity, the Holocaust-haunted past and the complexities of families. It got somewhat mixed reviews but most critics were aware of the talent Lowenthal showed in his characterization and subtle metaphors.

Avoidance is even better. Again, Lowenthal investigates sexuality and religion, although this time an Amish community is scrutinized. It functions as the perfect counterpart to a Vermont summer camp for boys called Ironwood, where Jeremy works as a counselor (and assistant director). At the age of twenty-eight, he is putting the final touch to his thesis on Amish "dissenters" who undergo the glacial rejection of their peers, Meidung, but his entire existence revolves around Ironwood, where he spent his summer holidays as a child. His staying with an Amish family for months may have deeply marked him, but it is when organizing the activities of dozens of buoyant boys that he thrives. When a particular fourteen-year-old orphan from New York City arrives at the camp, Jeremy is transformed forever.

What snagged me about Max was the slang of his demeanor. Not jadedness, exactly, but an offslant edge to genuine sincerity—that pinch of salt that sweetens the fudge. You could see it in his posture, the teenage slump that verged on scoliotic. And in the way he wore his Brooks Brothers boxers, pulled three inches above his ratty jeans to take the piss out of their WASP propriety. His greasy baseball cap, and its slogan: BLAH BLAH BLAH. His was a calculated sloppiness, full of attention to the image of inattention. (14-15)

This passage is typical of the often paradoxical turns of Lowenthal's writing, the mixture of literary articulacy and familiarity, the descriptive powers… Jeremy falls for Max, and there begins a remarkable process of moral and social questioning, for the author, the character, and the reader:

What is it that makes living in a close-knit community highly desirable and reassuring, what is it that makes it intolerably stifling? Which is more like a prison, the community or the outside world? How far should one go in one's obedience to the rules, and just how hypocritical are those rules? Are Jeremy's feelings for Max immoral? Pedophiliac? Pederastic? Homosexual? Or maybe Jeremy is an ephebophile, as Michael Cuesta would put it. How unacceptable is that? How criminal? How different would the situation be if Max were fifteen and not fourteen? Even in some liberal European countries, with low ages of consent, there are special provisions for teachers, camp counselors and the like. The idea being, obviously, that you occupy a position of authority and you wield a tremendous amount of influence over youngsters, like Jeremy at Ironwood. Lowenthal does not bring the law into play beyond a certain degree, as this is not what the novel is about, but you can feel that it is out there, on the edge of the woods; you can feel that there are scores of policemen, lawyers, parents' associations, morality leagues and religious organizations ready to pounce. Fourteen is not fifteen, it's a far cry from eighteen, and one does have to draw the line somewhere.

The very uncertain sexuality of Jeremy is impeccably rendered, along with the dark secrets of the past and of childhood (Lowenthal did it well in The Same Embrace already). "In the jungle of desire, I played dead." (49) "Did every boy have a secret self inside? Did I?" (52) His conflicting desires and sometimes flailing morals make the reader eager to read on and find out how far he will go, how self-destructive he might get. For Jeremy, whose widowed mother enlisted and dragged him around the world from base to base, Ironwood is the one secure and reliable place, the place that defines him; it is home. "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." (23)

The style is often arresting, with striking metaphors and similes: "hands as big as paperback mysteries" (31), "how could I wriggle out from the straitjacket of small talk?" (74), "I was suffering an almost chemical need for him, a hypoglycemic panic for his skin" (92), "like a snowflake, our embrace had been nearly devoid of weight, but implied all the crush of avalanche" (96).

One of the endearing features of the book is that Lowenthal manages to steer clear of what I call "supermarket psychoanalysis"; just when you think he might be yielding, his narrator Jeremy reflects: "But no, that was succumbing to armchair psychology. The world was surely more complex than that." (64) As a result, the reader cannot safely resort to Freud 101 either. The "supporting characters", Caroline, Charlie and Ruff, are almost as interesting as Jeremy and Max, even if their psychological makeup is impressionistically sketched. All in all, if I may be forgiven for this facile conclusion, Avoidance should not be avoided, far from it.

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