Wild Ride


Four years ago, British writer Nicholas Evans was so squeezed financially that he planned to ask his banker for greater overdraft privileges. But before he could plead his case, he learned that his half-finished novel was being bought for the screen by Robert Redford and Hollywood Pictures for $3 million. In addition, from the Frankfurt Book Fair came word that Dell Publishing was acquiring North American rights for $3.15 million.

"It was so ridiculous that it was hard for any of us, my wife or my kids, to get a fix on it," Evans said weeks later.

Published in 1995, Evans' "The Horse Whisperer," a love story set in Montana, went on to become one of the biggest successes of the last decade. The novel sold more than a million hardcover copies in the United States and was published in 36 other countries. The first printing in paperback--2.25 million copies in 1996--was believed to be the largest in industry history. Then Redford directed and starred in the film version, which, when released last spring, spurred still more book sales.

For an encore, Evans has returned to the grandeur of Big Sky country. His new novel, "The Loop" (Delacorte, 434 pages), sets the conflicts between a domineering rancher and his sensitive son, and between angry Montana locals and federal wildlife agents, against the true-to-life background of wolves emerging from the wild to prey on valuable livestock.

Of course, there's a love story in there too: The cold mountain nights are slowly warmed by a halting affection that develops between the sensitive son, 18-year-old Luke, and Helen, a 29-year-old biologist brought in by the feds to track and protect the wolves.

The character of Helen, in particular, grew out of Evans' own encounters out West.

"One of the great pleasures in getting back to researching again, after all that hoopla with 'The Horse Whisperer,' was to spend time with wolf biologists in Montana and learn the details of their lives," Evans says.

A handsome 48-year-old (who often shifts playfully into a dead-on American accent), Evans recalls that his encounters with Montana horse handlers and ranchers while writing "The Horse Whisperer" unexpectedly inspired his second novel.

"A woman I went to see about horses turned out to be married to a guy who knew more about wolves in Montana than anybody, a professor at the University of Montana at Missoula named Bob Ream. He told me about a plan to reintroduce wolves [from Canada] into Yellowstone Park and Idaho. He was against it and thought it would cause conflict . . .

"I knew I wouldn't be able to resist this idea of putting a wolf at the center of this story. The symbolism of this creature just worked for the book. . . . The story is about how we've learned to live with the wild outside and inside us."

Through Helen's wanderings in the wilderness, and the slinking about of a wolf executioner quietly retained by Luke's father, Evans vividly describes the animal's pack rituals and predatory skills. In one cinematic chapter, the pack of pups and grown wolves surrounds, pursues and brutally overwhelms a powerful bull moose.

"I didn't want to give a glamorized or Disney version of what wolves are like, where they're such lovely, cuddly, furry animals that lick their puppies," Evans notes. "They do that, but they also kill brilliantly--and tear animals apart."

Whether "The Loop" will approach "The Horse Whisperer" in popularity is hard to determine this early. No film deal is in place--yet. But there are similarities. Delacorte Press has given the new novel a supremely confident printing, starting with 750,000 copies. In addition, the first week's sales were so strong that it bowed at No. 2 on the Los Angeles Times' bestseller list published Sept. 20 and at No. 5 on the New York Times' national list Sunday.

At the same time, Evans' work again has stirred anything but unanimity among reviewers. "The Horse Whisperer" was one of those books that marked a clear divide between critical and popular tastes. It received some brutal reviews, including a long drubbing in the New York Times that still makes Evans wince ("a hodgepodge recycling of old movies and bad books").

But the sales volume suggests that the first novel generated great word of mouth. USA Today critic Deirdre Donahue recalled recently that she thought the story was "pretty silly," but recommended it to travel-bound friends who wanted a book that was "engaging but not taxing."

"The Loop" has been called a "gripping, big drama in Big Sky country" by People magazine, while Donahue's review was lukewarm: "a touch simplistic. But if you like to dance with wolves, consider a swing with . . . 'The Loop.' "

And there have been poundings. Novelist Craig Nova said in the Washington Post Book World: "The best way to describe the writing in 'The Loop' is to say it is Prozac Prose, the practice of which is a saccharine exercise." Outside magazine holds "The Loop" up to wicked spoofery by charting how Redford and other directors might film the novel: Michael Bay, a maker of action spectacles, might spin it so that a government cyborg (Jean-Claude Van Damme) tracks down a rogue agent named Wolf (Dennis Hopper).

Ah, but weep not for Nicholas Evans.

Asked about the banker he intended to meet four years ago, he said: "The funny thing you discover when you've got money is that bankers need you rather than you needing them. That same guy phoned and asked me to go to lunch with him.

"I didn't go."

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