Halfway into Avoidance, Michael Lowenthal pulls together what until then have been disparate themes that have ranged from the rejuvenating to the repellent. Jeremy Stull, bogged down by his dissertation at Harvard, seeks renewal of spirit by returning as assistant director to Ironwood, a camp in Vermont he had attended as an adolescent. He is drawn to Max, an audacious but sorely deprived fourteen-year- old who, like Jeremy, lost his father early and whose mother is dying. When Max claims he has been molested by Charley, Jeremy’s boss and best friend, a morality play in flashback ensues.
Jeremy remembers from his last camper summer another triangle with startling relevance to the current one with Max and Charley. The third leg is an older man, Ruff, founder of Ironwood and an all-knowing outdoorsman deeply revered by his two most accomplished young campers. During a survival-type exercise that will earn the two boys wilderness first-aid rating, Charley wins by a bogus coin flip the honor of sleeping in their tent with Ruff; Jeremy sleeps outside but within hearing of the goings-on inside. What he hears is less important than how he takes what he hears—perplexedly, resentfully, jealously. He masturbates.
Nothing in the last half of this novel is as deftly managed as this formative scene. The reader soon tires of the mercurial Max’s ever-changing versions and the twenty-nine-year-old Jeremy’s cloying tolerance. But Lowenthal maintains a tone of innocence (“dream rainbows, dream pots of gold”) that is vital in a novel of passage. To Ruff’s confident assertion that “a real man is still partly a boy,” a puzzled Jeremy asks himself: “Which part became a man? Which stayed boy?” The man gives up Max, resigns from Ironwood, returns to his carrel and thesis.
Using a “banished” Amish woman and a pitiable summer-camp outcast as buffers, the hero seeks to reconcile to love desires that verge on the erotic. Avoidance is seriously flawed only by the Amish interlude that is inadequately linked to the main action.