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BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL : Allegorical Trot Over Familiar, Predictable Terrain : SECOND NATURE by Alice Hoffman ; Putnam, $22.95, 254 pages.

March 25, 1994|CHRIS GOODRICH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Alice Hoffman, author of "At Risk" and "Turtle Moon" among many other novels, comes close to giving the game away very early in "Second Nature."

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A fur trapper walking his line in the far north woods finds a person caught by the foot in one of his steel snares, the skin-clad youth near death from cold and lost blood. The trapper is amazed at the discovery, of course, but while taking his unintended prey to the hospital, he is equally amazed by the young man's serene expression.

"If he'd seen anything like this face before," Hoffman says of the trapper, "it was in the chapel at St. Joseph's. . . . To the right of the pews, in a dark alcove, there had been a statue made of white wood with a countenance so calm it had made him weep."

The youth compared to Jesus, or at least some saint, turns out to have been raised by a family of wolves after an airplane crash of which he, at age 3, was the sole survivor. Reunited with the human race, he seems unable to speak; he makes not a sound at the New York hospital to which he is sent, frightening the staff--who call him the Wolf Man--with his silence, his stillness, his preference for raw meat.

The Wolf Man is neither particularly feral nor particularly heroic--like the reported Wild Child and Rome's wolf-suckled Romulus, respectively--but in Hoffman's hands he becomes a compelling figure nonetheless: more humane and, in some ways, more plainly human than the people he meets. We know that's going to be the case the moment Hoffman portrays the Wolf Man as Christlike: The main question, thereafter, is what form his crucifixion will take, and whether Hoffman can pull it off with grace.

"Second Nature" is not yawningly predictable, as one might assume given that the general course and moral position of the novel are evident from the first pages. Hoffman's premise is awfully familiar--we know we're going to encounter the nature-versus-nurture debate--yet she downplays that aspect of the book by focusing less on the Wolf Man than on the characters who surround him.

Principal among them is Robin Moore, who sets the story in motion by liberating the Wolf Man, on impulse, from the hospital (she had heard of his existence from her brother, one of the Wolf Man's doctors).

Robin, newly separated from her policeman husband, takes the Wolf Man home to her small, isolated town on Long Island, and before long he has learned to speak, read and work alongside Robin in her off-and-on landscaping business.

The Wolf Man--now referred to as Stephen, because he has remembered his name--doesn't intend to alter others' lives, but his presence is like a powerful magnet rearranging hopes and expectations.

Roy, Robin's ex-husband-to-be, becomes intensely jealous when he learns that Stephen is living in his old house, and notes too that Stephen is a superb physical specimen, running for miles and miles simply for the pleasure of it.

Old Dick, Robin's cantankerous 91-year-old grandfather, finds in Stephen the only person capable of understanding him, the Wolf Man showing an exceptional reverence for age and experience.

And Robin, for her part, can't help falling in love with Stephen, drawn to his strength, loyalty and integrity. Robin's love is requited--fortunately for her but unfortunately for him, because love compels Stephen to stay in unfamiliar territory and thus become a natural scapegoat.

Stephen's crucifixion isn't literal--he's simply accused of committing a series of increasingly heinous crimes in his adopted town. For a time one may wonder whether Stephen is indeed responsible, the wolf in him unable to control his predatory habits. But Hoffman scotches that possibility by her idealization of the Wolf Man and introduction of another character who fits, stereotypically, the killer-among-us profile.

That's a notable false note in "Second Nature," but not vital because the other characters are thoroughly convincing in all their confusions and ambivalences. It's a major theme in the novel, although rarely explicit, that while "men think about right and wrong . . . wolves have to know."

The fairest way of judging a book, I've long believed, is to determine, first, whether it succeeds on its own terms, and second, whether those terms are sufficient to the book's themes. "Second Nature" defies such analysis, however, for although both questions can be answered in the affirmative, the novel never takes off or reveals new insights into human nature.

It's as much an allegory as a novel, and as allegory, it forces characters and events to conform to the author's moral vision rather than letting the characters create a vision for themselves.

Call "Second Nature" a qualified success: technically accomplished, but hampered by a story that can only lead, without significant modification, down a conventional path.

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