Alice Hoffman's profound 10th novel, the story of a human being who has been raised by wolves, is both a marvelous fairy tale and an instructive fable. Stephen, the Wolf Man, in fact, has a dual nature: Until the age of 3, he lived in New York, the only
child of attentive, devoted parents. While the family was traveling by air from San Francisco to New York, the pilot inexplicably veered off course, and the plane crashed in the remote back country of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The only survivor, Stephen, was found by a family of wolves, among whom he grew to adulthood.
Unlike other Wolf Men of fact and legend, Stephen is truly a noble savage, who, we are told, resembles depictions of Jesus. Ms. Hoffman's achievement is to have made the unlikely Stephen a plausible and deeply sympathetic character.
She movingly describes how, growing up with the wolves, he tried to suppress what was human in him: "He had given up speech because it had ceased to matter. Year after year, he had named his brothers and sisters with words that had less and less meaning . . . Things were, with or without names . . . There was no point in questioning why." When Stephen drinks from forest pools, he closes his eyes so as not to see his own reflection, which frightens him because it reminds him that he is not really a wolf.
After Stephen is found by trappers, his foot caught and crushed in their trap, he is sent to a medical center in New York. There he recovers physically but proves unresponsive to the psychiatrist's efforts to reclaim his human nature.
Deemed incurable, he is about to be shipped off, in handcuffs, to a mental institution when he is impulsively rescued by a visitor. The visitor happens to be the psychiatrist's sister, Robin Moore, whose heart goes out to Stephen when he astounds her by speaking and appealing for help.
Robin is a typical Hoffman heroine -- plucky, determined and warmhearted. Estranged from her philandering husband, Roy, worried about her teen-age son, Connor, and her faltering
landscape-design business, she exhibits a reluctant though persevering independence. Just as Stephen trusts her with the secret that he can speak but has chosen not to, she also takes him on faith. Successfully abducting him, she brings him back to the small island community off western Long Island's North Shore, founded by her grandfather in the 1920s.
On the island we are in familiar Hoffman territory -- a suburb settled by inhabitants who have tried to create a domestic paradise and failed. Passing as Robin's business assistant, Stephen represses his second nature in order to learn the ways of men, all the while dreaming of returning to the wild. When he and Robin fall in love with each other, he finds himself torn between two conflicting desires.
Love, anarchic and redemptive, is at the heart of the novel. Stephen experiences it as an uncontrollable force within him which alters his sense of himself: "He began to burn on the coolest evenings, and the heat went up, into his head, until he thought he might explode."
Other explosive passions afflict and bless the island inhabitants. Deftly, Ms. Hoffman interweaves stories of their lives, bringing this close-knit, conventional and suspicious community to life. She shows how Stephen responds to the other islanders and how, even when they are ignorant of his identity, he becomes a kind of mirror for their hidden desires.
Several months after Stephen's arrival, the community's equanimity is disturbed by a plague of deaths of small animals. Cats and dogs are found with their throats slit, birds are strangled. Ms. Hoffman tells the gripping story masterfully as events build to a climactic tragedy. She creates a symphony of alternating doubt and trust while revealing the truth all along for those who know how to see it. In this novel, as in many of her others, the collective mentality of the community is revealed as ignorant and vindictive, and the face of evil is shown to be essentially banal.
When Stephen learns the solution to the ugly mystery, his choice has already been made. In a series of stunning scenes, Ms. Hoffman contrasts the deliberative morality of men to the instinctual morality of wolves: "Men think about right and wrong; they have to debate it, discuss it, draw upon possibilities and statistics, laws and codes. Wolves have to know . . . in an instant, pure instinct, not thought, because they can never be wrong."
Who is Stephen finally? A sojourner among men and in his modest way a savior, he transforms the lives of those who come to know him. Flawlessly crafted, thrillingly satisfying, "Second Nature" will move readers with its passion as it provokes them into thought.
Ms. Whitehouse is a writer who lives in New York.
Title: "Second Nature"
Author: Alice Hoffman
Length, price: 254 pages, $22.95