BOOK REVIEW : 'Hunter's Road' Faces the Hot Moral Issue of Killing to Survive : A HUNTER'S ROAD: A Journey With Gun and Dog Across the American Upland, by Jim Fergus ; Henry Holt; $21.95, 290 pages

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Jim Fergus spent a year afield with gun and dog, traveling through bird country from Colorado to Maine to Florida in a cozy and well-provisioned camper, and he recalls the journey in intimate and evocative detail in "A Hunter's Road."

Whether we regard his odyssey through the American heartland as a real-life adventure or a particularly colorful and romantic midlife crisis--and whether the reader is a hunter or not--it's an absorbing, provocative and even enchanting book.

Fergus adopts the demeanor of the contemporary field-and-stream writer: He is sensitive but not sentimental, gruffly rhapsodic on the beauty of nature and mindful of a revisionist code of the wilderness that is environmentally alert, gender-neutral and politically correct.

Fergus seems to understand that the very notion of shooting wild animals will be off-putting to some readers, and he is quick to confront the hot moral issue. Hunting, he suggests, is an elevated and even transcendent encounter between a human being and the natural world: "I think we owe the game we take some measure of respect and thanks--each animal we kill a kind of silent prayer," he writes.

Fergus is quick to proclaim his own basic decency: "To this day I remain squeamish about killing things," he writes. "I hate suffering of any kind, human or animal. Don't think that because I'm a hunter that this is not so."

Then he squeezes off a double-barreled argument in favor of hunting, one part aimed at animal-rights activists and doctrinaire vegetarians and one at squeamish carnivores who buy their meat at the supermarket.

Fergus reminds the militant vegetarian that the food chain in the natural order of things does not resemble a Disney cartoon: "In the real world, game birds are prey, born to be eaten by something, whether by a falcon, a coyote, a fox or an owl," he argues. "Or a man. I'm quite willing to share with the other predators."

And he asserts the moral superiority of the hunter over the smug suburbanite who contents himself with frozen chicken parts from the supermarket: "As modern consumers, we tend to think of this bloodless product as something manufactured," he asserts. "The terrible intimacy of killing, drawing and eating anchors the hunter to a real earth, a place he can believe in."

Then, too, Fergus is alert with the despoliation of the environment, especially because it has resulted in a decline in the bird population and an unfortunate deterioration in the quality of bird hunting. He writes with authority about the peculiar environmental politics of wildlife management, and he urges us to regard the plight of the hunter as a harbinger of ecological crisis.

"The birds are trying to tell us something," he quotes one of his fellow hunters. "And I think it's time we started listening."

Above all, Fergus is attuned to the elaborate protocols of bird hunting, and his book is as much concerned with matters of form and style as any novel of manners. He prefers old-fashioned side-by-side shotguns to automatic shotguns, he appreciates courtly manners in the field and he likes to give his prey a sporting chance. The fact that he doesn't shoot very well, as he freely admits, greatly improves the prey's odds of survival.

Some of the most intriguing lore of the hunter is presented almost in passing as Fergus describes his various hunts in loving detail. He tells us how to dispatch a wounded bird by inserting the quill of one of its own feathers into its brain. He discusses the merits of field-dressing a newly killed bird to prevent fecal matter from traveling through the shot paths. And he provides lots of elegant recipes for game birds, including a recipe for woodcock sausage that "is perfectly suited for birds ruined by shot or freezer burn."

Fergus tries to present himself as a rough-and-ready outdoorsman, but he reveals himself to be a man of taste and refinement. He tends to choose artists and poets as his shooting companions; he even lists a couple of writers with whom he intended to hunt. Fergus is tolerant of "the Count," a titled sportsman with good manners, impeccable taste in wine and dogs and a vast estate in Florida, but he is contemptuous of a one-armed police chief in a small Midwestern town who hunts too near the interstate to suit Fergus's fancy.

Fergus warns us at the outset of his book that he used "certain fictional devices and techniques," and his confession casts a pall over his accomplished and vivid narrative. I found myself wondering whether he was really rescued from the wilderness of Michigan's Upper Peninsula by a golden-haired wood nymph in a ranger's uniform who just happened to be named Diana.

"You think I'm making this up?" Fergus asks. "I am not."

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