Manhattan Moment, Circa 1970, Captured by a Watchful Youth

Capture the Flag , by Rebecca Chace. Simon & Schuster, 280 pages, $23.

It used to be that religion served, at least in theory, to make people act in civilized ways and to sublimate their more barbarous instincts. Once, the hope of heaven and the terror of hellfire were the carrot and stick meant to keep humankind trudging along the otherwise unrewarding path of virtue. But now that we’re all home reading memoirs and autobiographical novels during those lazy hours that in the past were more profitably passed in our chosen house of worship, a different sort of apprehension–far more daunting than the threat of burning lakes and pitchfork-wielding demons–has taken over the thankless task of making us tread the straight and narrow. Now, what keeps us honest, or in any case more pleasant than we normally might be, is the understandable anxiety that someone (perhaps even our own beloved children) may someday write a book about us–a book in which our unconscionable behavior and bad manners are exposed for the delight and delectation of the whole harsh world of readers.

Regarded in that light, Rebecca Chace’s first novel, Capture the Flag , functions more or less like Jonathan Edwards’ famously harrowing sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Ms. Chace, whose well-received Chautauqua Summer described her experience as a trapeze artist with the Flying Karamazov Brothers, is the daughter of a distinguished New York literary lineage. Her father is the writer, editor and political theorist James Chace, her mother the poet Jean Valentine. And though it’s impossible and, in any case, beside the point for the casual reader to ascertain how much of Ms. Chace’s fiction has been taken, as they say, from life, what’s undeniable is that she has faithfully rendered the foibles and failings of her own and her parents’ generation: the volatile chemistry of love and self-interest, nurture and neglect, freedom and responsibility that caused Ms. Chace and her contemporaries (the novel is set in the 1970′s) to grow up in a most peculiar limbo–half-indulged, half-feral.

The eponymous game that lends structure and provides the (perhaps too) dominant motif for Capture the Flag is the yearly ritual that the Edwards family and the marvelously named Shanlick-Masons play on the latter’s farm in upstate New York. As one might expect, a good deal more is at stake–matters of sex and competition, loyalty and tradition–than the white T-shirts that serve as the trophies in a contest that is way more expansive, elaborate and fiercely Darwinian than most of us will remember from our vague meanderings about the schoolyard. As the children grow older and their parents’ marriages falter and crumble under the pressures of personal dissatisfaction and their artist-intellectual subculture’s rather touchingly dorky version of the swinging 70′s, the question of whether the game will survive–and who will continue to play it–becomes a metaphor for inchoate longings and more palpable confusions.

Ms. Chace’s protagonist is the sympathetic and chronically bewildered Annie Edwards, who is 11 when we first meet her, face blackened with grease paint, racing over the fields and through the forests as she searches for the elusive flag–and finds, instead, a bewildering and troubling sexual encounter with Justin Mason, the adolescent stepson of her father’s best friend. Ms. Chace is good at depicting the ways in which children comprehend absolutely everything and absolutely nothing, a skill that serves her well as Annie tries to unravel the mysteries of the adult life around her. Why does her mother keep abruptly disappearing for unscheduled vacations–”All anyone would say was that Ellen was in the hospital because she needed a rest”–at an upscale Westchester loony bin? Why does her father grab the ass of that strange woman at the Shanlick-Masons’ New Year’s Eve loft party? What heady tensions and forbidden attachments connect the Shanlick-Masons–a notably darker and more sexed-up SoHo version of the Brady Bunch–a family that boasts the most heavily freighted and highly charged sibling situation since Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles ?

While the adults’ attention is so obviously focused elsewhere, Annie–like the young Shanlick-Masons–is left pretty much on her own to navigate the mean streets and meaner private schools of Manhattan. By necessity an autodidact, Annie learns about drugs and sex at an alarmingly early age. (“By the middle of eighth grade she had figured out that if you stayed with one guy for a while you weren’t a slut no matter what you did with him–and somehow everyone knew what everyone else did as soon as it happened. If you switched boyfriends a lot, and went all the way with them, then you were a slut and nobody would like you–even the boys. When the boy with whom she had lost her virginity broke up with her she was heartbroken for about two weeks.”) And after a series of bruising and painfully offhand relationships with boys, Annie finds herself drawn into a relatively sweet affair with one of the fascinating Shanlick-Mason sisters.

Though Ms. Chace writes with a great deal of compassion and sympathy for her novel’s soi-disant grown-ups, the novel’s final section makes it terrifyingly clear how little these preoccupied parents (kept understandably busy tracking the progress of their own divorces and remarriages) know about the secret lives of their kids. For all the privilege and sophistication with which these young New Yorkers are being raised, there’s something terribly Dickensian about this kind of post-60′s Manhattan childhood. Annie and her downtown friends are like updated Oliver Twists, attending unsupervised Upper East Side teen-sex parties, hefting six-packs and taking drugs, roaming the streets like little bands of Artful Dodgers.

Capture the Flag is not only an accurate portrait of two generations at a certain moment in Manhattan history, but a cautionary tale. The next time you catch yourself squabbling unattractively with your spouse or groping some stranger at a social occasion, it might be wise to remember: The little darlings are watching, and probably taking notes.