Michael Lowenthal

  • 2002
  • Graywolf Press
  • ISBN 1555973671
  • Paperback
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How does someone, excluded from the only community he or she has ever known, go on living?

Haunted by this question, Harvard graduate student Jeremy Stull lives with a devout Amish family to observe both their faith and their strict shunning of those who breach it. He befriends Beulah—a banished Amish woman—but comes no closer to understanding her predicament than he is to fathoming his own bitter exile.

For Jeremy, community means Ironwood, a summer camp in the Vermont woods that is more than a mere diversion for restless boys—it is a place to belong. First as a camper, then as assistant director, Jeremy has found in Ironwood's rituals a sturdy foundation for his life; like the tight-knit Amish society he's been studying, it's a whole greater than the sum of its parts. But when he is blindsided by the seductive charm of Max, a fourteen-year-old boy from Manhattan, all arms and legs and attitude, Jeremy must confront both his own confusing desires and a legacy of disturbing secrets at his beloved Ironwood. In this powerful and daring novel, Lowenthal ingeniously explores an age-old dilemma: individual desire versus the good of the group.

Praise for Avoidance

"The best novel that has come or is likely to come out of the Catholic sexual child-abuse scandal appeared late last year, and it happens to be a work by a Jew in which no Catholic appears. Michael Lowenthal's only contact with the Roman Catholic Church, so far as I know, is that he teaches creative writing at a Catholic university, Boston College. Not to be coy, Avoidance is neither a novel with a Catholic setting nor a roman à clef nor some kind of allegory. The setting is a boys summer camp, and religion is never mentioned in the story. Yet Lowenthal recreates with exceptional honesty and sympathy a poignant human drama of which during the past year the Catholic Church has offered more than its share of examples...

"Reading Lowenthal can be like sparring with a partner who dances around and never stops joking but every so often pops you one right in the kisser...

"[He] makes me think of the novelist Michael Cunningham—not the Cunningham of The Hours but the younger Cunningham of A Home at the End of the World. This is only Lowenthal's second novel, but he has the talent to go as far as Cunningham has gone. He has the same eye and ear for the interiority of "families," whatever shape they take. He has the same uncanny ability to fuse a place and a cast of characters in his reader's mind. He has the same lyricism on tap. And he has, in addition, the abovementioned left jab." Jack Miles, Commonweal Magazine

"...disturbing, elegant and powerful...[Lowenthal] has thrown down one hell of a gauntlet...[his] particular talent as a novelist is exploring gray areas with wisdom and confidence. Disarmingly but beautifully, he's explored the blurry line between selfless love and selfish lust." Mark Athitakis, Washington Post

"Fine writers, at least according to one school of thought, should be disturbers of the peace of mind. They should set sail, that is, to our most turbulent cultural waters and challenge, rather than affirm, our most comfortable pieties. Judging by his second novel, it's easy to suspect that Michael Lowenthal wholeheartedly embraces this philosophy." Andrew Furman, The Miami Herald

"...Michael Lowenthal deserves a medal for courage...[Avoidance] gleams with sensitivity and insight...his metaphor-rich prose grounds the fiction in a vivid landscape of particulars. Themes never override the centrality of this writer's sure-handed storytelling. It's easy to understand the victim of sexual abuse. Lowenthal achieves the much more difficult task of making fully human the potential abuser." Dan Cryer, NewsDay

"...a nod to classic 'homosexual novels' of forbidden love...Michael Lowenthal is shaking off the confines of contemporary gay fiction...Avoidance [is] the sort of literary fiction popular during a time when gay love was written mostly between the lines." Robert Pela, The Advocate

"Lowenthal...crafts a tale at times so disturbing you want to shield your eyes. But his storytelling makes it impossible to look away." Jane H. Ungaschick, Boston Magazine

"...fearless and expertly crafted..." Vanity Fair

"...[A] beautiful and gripping novel that explores the boundaries of desire and its numerous consequences...Avoidance's subtly explored themes of community and exclusion reach a heartbreaking conclusion." Michael Taeckens, Out Magazine

"This finely etched second novel by Lowenthal (The Same Embrace) tells the story of Jeremy Stull, a Harvard graduate student who has lived with the Amish and spends most of his time researching the lives of those excommunicated from Amish communities. During the summer, he is also the assistant director of Camp Ironwood, a haven in the Vermont woods for troubled boys. As he probes the personal lives of these two groups, Jeremy struggles with his own latent homosexuality. Nearly celibate, Jeremy has put off confronting sexual desires that make him uncomfortable, but this comes to an end with the arrival at Ironwood of Max Conner, a charismatic 14-year-old with a tragic family history. In taming the insubordinate Max, Jeremy is reminded of his own childhood, the death of his father and his history at the camp. He also sees some of his own quandaries reflected in the life of Beulah Glick, a lonely Amish woman who decided to leave the fold rather than shun her excommunicated husband. Lowenthal deftly weaves together scenes of Amish and camp life; juxtaposing these two tightly knit communities, he explores the appeal of highly structured, restrictive collectives as well as questions of temptation and self-mastery, faith and belonging. Lowenthal has a fine ear for the vernaculars of urban campers, Harvard academics and the cloistered, bilingual Amish, and he handles the potentially explosive subject of Jeremy's unrequited attraction to Max with subtlety and sensitivity. These different elements form a rich, complex narrative that is as inspiring as it is thought provoking." Publisher's Weekly (Starred)

"Disturbed and displaced by the death of his father as a little boy, Jeremy finds his roots and, indeed, his avocation at Camp Ironwood, where he began as a camper and rose to assistant camp director. In the winter months, as a graduate student, Jeremy studies the Amish people, with particular emphasis on their practice of shunning. Social avoidance and marking those who differ from what is learned may be formalized in the Amish community, but it is very similar to socialization at a boy's camp and to the larger community's reaction to homosexuality. By interweaving and comparing those three types of social avoidance, as well as studying what it means to protect kinship and fellowship, Lowenthal (The Same Embrace) shows what it means to be a fallible human. At times haunting and disturbing, his second novel teaches a quiet lesson: one person can, in fact, rein in individual desires and create a community that is stronger than the sum of its parts and thereby find personal redemption. With beautiful characterizations of the boys at Ironwood and a lyrical rendering of a man's conflicting spiritual pulls, Avoidance is not to be missed. Highly recommended." Library Journal (Starred)

"Avoidance walks a precarious tightrope between desire and responsibility, love and passion. Lowenthal's vividly imagined characters are infinitely capable of surprising us, as is his deft plot. This is a novel which asks us to both think and feel and rewards us for both." Margot Livesey, author of Eva Moves the Furniture and The Boy in the Field

"Lowenthal explores the slippery shapes of desire and traces the thin line between thought and deed. A splendid novel, as gripping as it is moving and complex." Elizabeth Graver, author of Unraveling and The Honey Thief

"Avoidance is at turns utterly compelling and utterly repellent, clearly by design. A frightening, but ultimately rewarding, ride." Jim Grimsley, author of Dream Boy

"Michael Lowenthal is simply a wonderful storyteller. He understands both the heart's need for community and the soul's need for seclusion—and the way evil can exist in either place." Chris Bohjalian, author of Buffalo Soldier and Trans-Sister Radio