Ben by Max Schott. North Point Press: 165 pages; $17.95.

Who is loneliest:

A boy with his dying mother? A terminally-ill woman watching her family grow dimmer? A sad and confused husband? A woman who loves her own sister's man? A bereft cowboy? A spunky woman trapped by domestic life? Or maybe the lone trick donkey in his pen?

Every character in "Ben" is constantly on the verge of sobs. The loneliness of love lost, or soon to be, confines them in their own egglike existences but bonds them just the same because they reach out to comfort, to identify--love rivals lonesomeness.

And the story, a reminiscence, throbs with old pains, time gone by, and the cutting old events which cannot be changed. Affluent and pastoral California converge through Max, an adult looking back on a difficult adolescence. Max works for Ben, a ranch hand, because he needs to escape the grief and tension in his family, to keep busy and keep his mind off his mother's approaching death from a brain tumor. The two talk little and form a silent, almost animal dependence upon one another. Consequently, Ben invites Max to spend the summer helping him run his new ranch, which, Schott hints morosely, amounts to about as much as any of our best laid plans.

Ranch hand Ben writes letters to his estranged wife Audrey every week and recieves chatty but ambiguous answers. He reads one to Max's aunt Anna hoping for direction, and tells her all about his courtship of the talented and beautiful rodeo performer. When they married, Ben convinced her to give up her rodeo life. Jealous of Audrey's potential, he caged her and tried to force her to be a housewife. He bought Audrey a donkey to divert her and she spends lonely hours in the corral teaching it tricks. She leaves Ben, comes back, and leaves him again.

Everyone draws to the sincere and cowboyish friendly Ben. Not that Ben is a tower of strength. Rather, the pain over his failed marriage spreads around him like an aura, making his honest humanity apparent, magnetic--and a little sugary.

In his homey and slow way, Ben suffers like somebody out of a cowboy song. His spoiled marriage has made him an old and beaten man. Though apparently only in his thirties or forties, he groans when he moves and has failing eyesight. Ben is a strange, grizzled child, the most unbelievable character in a book of real humans. Even his martyred drinking bouts demand love and tearful sympathy.

Somehow, like saints, gods, or Everyman, Ben embodies the others' desperation: Max is infatuated with his aunt whom, of course, will always remain untouchable. In turn, aunt Anna is in love with her dying sister's husband, also unavailable. And perhaps saddest of all, Max's mother, Kate, waits feebly to be removed from everyone she loves.

If this whole novel sounds too depressing or soap-operish, it is, a little. Schott's laughable yet recognizable characters survive by painfully reaching from their loneliness to care for others. When Ben sings the refrain of his cowboy-song life: "It's a sad story, Anna, I tell it to myself every night," we empathize.