There are coming-of-age novels, and then there are the odd and mystical tales written by novelist and poet Nicholas Christopher. His latest effort, The Bestiary, bounds from New York City tenements to Vietnam to the Mediterranean as we follow the heroically named Xeno Atlas on his quest for dragons. OK, maybe not dragons, exactly, but how far behind can the fairy-tale firebreathers be when we're on the trail of griffins, centaurs and the legendary phoenix? What Xeno seeks is the Caravan Bestiary, a book listing all of the animals that were supposedly left off of Noah's Ark. The book, which has danced in and out of history since the Middle Ages, becomes an obsession for Xeno. It's not hard to understand why.
Like the mythical creatures of the Bestiary, Xeno also has been left behind. His mother died in childbirth and his sailor father is a sporadic presence in Xeno's life. His only friends are a sickly boy named Bruno and his sister Lena, at whose home he spends as much time as he does in the Bronx apartment he shares with his grandmother. When his grandmother dies, Xeno's father shunts him off to boarding school, where a professor tells him about the Bestiary. As in most of Christopher's novels, his language possesses a lyricism that sets it apart from the ordinary. Xeno also avoids the prosaic. He goes off to war and comes back whole. At a crossroads, he resumes his passionate hunt for the Bestiary. The chase allows him to forget about the bleakness of his own lonely life. If you search for something long enough, you become the quest. It soon becomes evident that while trying to discover the ancient tome, Xeno is trying to discover himself. But sometimes, even when the journey remains unchanging, the destination has unwittingly transformed. And Xeno, like so many others, finds out that what he really was looking for was right in front of him all the time. Ian Schwartz writes from San Diego.