Evans' 'The Loop': Wolf whispers

September 27, 1998|By Chris Kridler | Chris Kridler,SUN STAFF

"The Loop," by Nicholas Evans. Delacorte Press. 464 pages. $25.95.

What was most thrilling about Nicholas Evans' best seller "The Horse Whisperer" was not its overheated, melodramatic romance. It was, instead, the romance the characters had with the great American West. Even when Evans' story lost its way, the writer's feel for the land was intoxicating.

His magnificent Montana vistas are back in his new novel, "The Loop," and without the vaguely ridiculous excesses that sank the promising "Whisperer." There are dollops of steamy sex, romantic despair, difficult politics and violence, but all in proportions moderate enough to make "The Loop" a satisfying best seller.

Horses were the mysterious creatures of the last novel, in which an idealized cowboy set out to heal a family by bringing its traumatized horse back from the brink of oblivion after a horrible accident. Here, it's wolves, which aren't nearly as cuddly as horses but are, in many ways, more intriguing.

When deer and elk aren't available, wolves will sometimes hunt livestock. And that's why all the ranchers in "The Loop" are out to kill them. Wolves are endangered, of course, and they have their protectors, particularly Helen Ross, a wolf biologist helping out the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

She's a real "bunny-hugger," as the most powerful rancher, Buck Calder, amusingly calls her. She's also wonderfully sympathetic, part because of her flaws. Nearly 30 and haunted by her bad history with men, she comes to Montana feeling that she's lost The One. She carves out a hard existence in a tiny, rustic cabin as she tries to track the wolves and shield them from the ranchers' ire.

She's not the only miserable wolf-lover; Buck Calder's son, Luke, is a sensitive, stuttering young man who is tormented by his father's bristling bravado and inimical views. Luke, barely out of high school, is a nascent researcher who longs to study the animals, not work his life away on the ranch. He lives in the shadow of a perfect brother who died young.

While these tormented characters are at the novel's center, many more play roles in the bitter conflict between ranchers and biologists, and between the womanizing, charismatic Buck and his family. Evans is most sympathetic toward the women and the wolves. And though the characters are adequately complicated (with the exception of a crazed Vietnam vet and some of his fellow ranchers), it's the wolf lore that gives the novel its richness.

Evans' research shows in his descriptions of the animals on the hunt - and of the trappers tracking the animals. He writes of the pack hunting:

"The moose struck out with his hind feet but the wolf swung clear of them without loosening his grip and the fraction of speed the moose lost by kicking gave the alpha female her chance. Her teeth flashed and found purchase in the bull's right flank and as he tried to kick at her he stumbled. He quickly found his footing again and plowed on up the clearing with the two wolves locked to his flesh and swinging from him like stoles."

Yes, the novel occasionally seems like an episode of "Nature" with a hint of "Dallas" thrown in. But it's a most diverting escape into the great outdoors, with a melancholy love story and a healthy, if sometimes heavy-handed, dose of conscience.

Chris Kridler is The Sun's assistant arts and entertainment editor. Her work has appeared in not only The Sun, but the Maryland Poetry Review, the Miami Herald, Premiere and elsewhere.

Pub Date: 9/27/98

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