As Max Saw It

AS MAX SAW IT, the third novel by Louis Begley, an accomplished attorney who began publishing fiction in his fifties, traces the sixteen-year relationship between Charlie and Toby through Max’s imperceptive eyes. Max encounters his former college classmate Charlie with sixteen-year-old Toby at a posh Italian villa. Max runs into Charlie and Toby again, in Beijing, and discovers they are lovers. After a huge inheritance enables the professor to purchase a retreat in the Berkshires, near one built by Charlie, Max and his wife Camilla see much of Charlie and Toby.

Despite disparities of age and status, the relationship between Toby and the brash architect endures to Charlie’s sixtieth birthday. On the evening of the celebration, it becomes clear that Toby, who has developed sores on face, hands, and forearms, is gravely ill. A few months later, he dies in severe pain and in Charlie’s bed. Although it is apparent from his symptoms that Toby probably dies of AIDS, Begley has written an affecting tale that never once mentions the dreaded acronym. At least two of its three chief characters are homosexual, yet, though Charlie delights in flouting prim conventions, the narrator is remarkably reticent about men’s love for other men.

In exquisitely spare, controlled prose, AS MAX SAW IT offers an elegant study in denial and self-deception. When, after the disintegration of his marriage, Max learns that his wife had been sleeping with Toby, he never considers the...

(The entire section is 609 words.)