THE ZOO WHERE YOU'RE FED TO GOD

Michael Ventura; Simon & Schuster, 255 pages, $21.00.
Here is some disturbing news: Tigers, for all practical purposes, are extinct. Hearing about endangered species as a child, I always expected that one night Marlon Perkins would come on TV and announce, "Well now you've done it -- there's none left," but it doesn't happen that way. We won't know exactly when the last tiger lays down and dies, but we do know that there's too few left for them to have any chance. Those that remain, both in zoos and the wild, have such a limited gene pool to draw upon that their essential tigerness will soon be bred out of them.

Into the despair of living in a world where there are no more tigers comes the novel The Zoo Where You're Fed to God, by Michael Ventura. In it, a respected 50-year-old surgeon named James Abbey goes mad, but his madness allows him to communicate with animals at the zoo and understand that, for much of the earth's population -- tigers, elephants, coyotes and many others -- the end is literally nigh.

Ventura steps close to the edge of the embarrassing with the new-agey truisms he imparts as omniscient narrator. But he convinces us that one must risk embarrassment to achieve the profound. And the dark corners he paints in the protagonist's psyche give the book a sense of honesty and importance.

Abbey is not just a predictable yuppie experiencing a shallow mid-life enlightenment; as a young doctor in a Vietnam MASH unit, he once furtively nibbled on a leg he'd freshly amputated. And, despite the routine encroachments of gang violence, he refuses to move his wife and son from their urban L.A. neighborhood, out of allegiance to his Brooklyn roots and because "You can't protect anyone from anything." The fury that statement arouses from Abbey's wife leads to one of the book's more forceful subpoints: The foolishness of parents who attempt, impossibly, to rid the world of danger, rather than equipping their children with the skills to handle it.

Separated from his family due to his growing strangeness, Abbey finds a soulmate at the zoo -- a twentysomething convenience-store clerk and struggling rock singer named Lee, a classic but accurately modern tragic heroine whose cryptic comments about her past reveal childhood sexual abuse and possibly worse. Abbey tells her the meaning of the animals, which he begins to understand with visionary clarity, and as their relationship develops, she helps him find the peace of mind to continue an existence which had become unbearable.

Ventura, however, does not let us off easily. Finding "love" is not the whole answer for James Abbey. The peace he attains demands an almost Christ-like detachment from the world. It comes when memories no longer evoke sorrow because they belong irretrievably to the past; when they can be appreciated for their contours and colors and textures, like polished stones.

There is probably nothing you can do now for the tigers, The Zoo teaches, other than to preserve them that way in memory.

-- Benjamin Cohen

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