Not that it's a bad thing for your first novel to be a bestseller.

Still, being the author of that front-runner of a book and movie, The Horse Whisperer, just naturally boosts the pressure of expectations on your next one.

Nicholas Evans courts this danger by repeating the general theme of an unorthodox love affair between a man and a woman wholly united in trying to rescue innocent creatures. In the end, he finesses the problem: these people are themselves wounded souls and the animals they work so hard to save are not a gentle domesticated species gone wrong but those most legendarily dreaded of all beasts -- wolves.

What's more, Evans refuses to resort to meat tenderizing.

Actually, I don't mind moderate anthropomorphism, on the theory that human beings can make no judgments about anything except on the basis of human experience. Nevertheless, Evans gets highest marks for The Loop in allowing wolves to be wolves. With nature's tooth and claw on full display, you'll find no feral Lassies here. However, in our time, we can afford to love wolves, and readers of The Loop will find themselves once more following the call of the wild, however it might bemuse our ancestors.

The humans aren't idealized either. Helen Ross, the 29-year-old wolf biologist called in to investigate Montana ranchers' allegations of wolf depredation, obsesses about the desertion of her lover. When she meets 17-year-old Luke, the stuttering son of area bigshot Buck Calder, the two are attracted by their common love and respect for all of nature's wildlife -- not to mention their united detestation for the bullying, womanizing behavior of Luke's father.

Some readers (I'm one) may have their doubts about such a love affair, but these people are not one-dimensional characters. Evans is psychologically sound in his depiction of Luke's stuttering problem, Buck's marriage gone bad, and the various motivations of government officials and their rancher opponents.

As for The Loop, well, there is the Loop and then there is the loop. The first refers to what basically amounts to the eternal food chain of nature, "Where once there had been life, now was death. And out of death, thus, was life sustained." The second is a sadistic instrument devised by an old wolf-hunter as a substitute for poison.

Evans likes to play little tricks on readers, often leaving them with an impression that is corrected in the next chapter, usually for the better. His writing is expert, full of nuance and tossed-off imagery ("There was no moon and every far-flung star in the firmament was pitching for the job").

It will come as no surprise if this intelligent, provocative novel wins its own spot on the bestseller list. About both people and animals, Nicholas Evans is an alpha storyteller.

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