FICTION : SEASONS OF THE HUNTER, edited by Robert Elman and David Seybold (Knopf: $17.95).

Ernest Hemingway understood that regardless of war's destructiveness and cruelty, it had the potential to provide a heightened sensibility. Hunting is the same. It is ironic that as hunting makes its last stand in America, culturally estranged and running out of subject matter, it is producing its best literature.

The 20 essays (or autobiographical sketches, if you prefer) and stories in "Seasons of the Hunter" have nothing to do either with a growing popular wisdom that hunters are cretinous monsters, nor with comic-book heroics in the macho adventure outdoor magazines. Indeed, this anthology is strikingly cerebral, ironic, introspective. When killing was commonplace, contemplation of it--at least, in print--was not. Now that hunters are a harangued minority, their prey reduced to forsaken corners of the continent, their pastime recalling a bygone, atavistic ecology, the stalking and killing of animals is no longer taken for granted.

These 20 pieces are good ; editors Robert Elman and David Seybold solicited writers not only talented, but possessing an uncanny commonality. Some stand out: Thomas McGuane writing of youth; Charles Gaines' recollection of a time and a dog; Seybold's insight into ways of dying. "Seasons of the Hunter" deserves attention in circles beyond the diminishing cadre of literate nimrods.

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