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Nature at its most revealing

Jane Ciabattari is the author of the short-story collection "Stealing the Fire" and a contributing editor for Parade magazine.

It is a joy to encounter a new short-story writer with the bite and sparkling freshness of Hannah Tinti. Her first collection, “Animal Crackers,” is a most promising effort, with remarkable range and inventiveness -- and a deliciously deadpan sense of humor.

The collection is linked by theme, with each of the 11 stories revolving around an animal -- a Colombian red-tailed boa constrictor, an elephant, a monkey, a group of giraffes that threatens to strike, presenting its zookeeper with a list of complaints (“Too much acacia

The title story, “Animal Crackers,” gives us a zoo worker learning to groom an elephant while coming to terms with his brutish behavior toward his ex-wife. His co-workers all carry scars: Joseph got his arm chomped off by a Senegalese tiger; a gorilla took a bite out of Sandy’s face; Mike bears the trauma of a deep-sea swim in which a big, dark and scaly thing carried off a friend; Ann believes her cat saved her from being abducted by aliens. Midway through this story, Tinti announces the book’s theme: “You hear animal stories every day: How a bee stung little Johnny and he went into cardiac arrest. How a snake bit Cousin Tom and it shriveled up his toe.... These stories are supposed to give warning.”

But what makes these stories extraordinary is Tinti’s subtext: what we are capable of doing to each other -- and to nature. She is masterful at describing the varying hues of human strangeness and violence. In her universe, an elephant’s self-protective instinct to charge when surprised is parallel to a husband’s reaction to finding another man in bed with his wife. And what will happen when the husband and elephant are alone in a cage is anybody’s guess.

Many of these tales cut close to the bone. “Home Sweet Home” starts as a leisurely, matter-of-fact story and ends in all the ugliness of a love triangle gone wrong. “Pat and Clyde were murdered on pot roast night,” the story opens. The details are pedestrian, even dreary, and at first seem out of sync with murder -- Pat preparing dinner, arranging the butter and the margarine side by side, “one yellow airy and light, the other hard and dark like the yolk of an egg,” while watching “Rebel Without a Cause” on the old Zenith in the kitchen and thinking about James Dean. This makes the denouement all the more chilling. Yet we know from the headlines there is nothing exotic about home-grown murder. And Buster, the family dog, with his hyper-attuned senses, might as well lead us to the perpetrator.

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A Colombian red-tailed boa constrictor is the centerpiece of “How to Revitalize the Snake in Your Life.” The boa has been left behind by Fred, a conceptual artist, who is briefly the narrator’s lover. The narrator, a former anatomy student, starts leaving the cage unlocked. At first the boa rewards her by ridding her kitchen of cockroaches. The relationship between girl and snake deepens, then sours. Three months later, when Fred comes back for his pet, the narrator has taken a vicious revenge.

“Miss Waldron’s Red Colobus,” the final story, is great fun. An author’s note describes it as “loosely based” on the discovery of a species of monkey in 1936 by “Willoughby P. Lowe, a collector for British Museums,” and named for his “traveling companion,” referred to only as Miss Waldron. The mysterious woman also has inspired at least one poem in recent years (“Miss Waldron’s Red Colobus Is Extinct” by Jean Monahan). In Tinti’s hands, she is imagined as an American girl whose father drops her off at a boarding school at age 12 and hires private detectives -- “three educated men from Minnesota” -- to keep an eye on her. The device leads to hilarious ends: The girl “convinced a team of Navy cadets to infiltrate the boarding school and smuggle her” away from the nuns; a month later she is returned by the detectives, bearing tales of “submarines and speakeasies, coral reefs and coconuts.” Her father sends her to a stricter school in England. Shortly thereafter, the detectives cable her father: “DAUGHTER HAS ESCAPED FROM MADAME YUPLAIT STOP ON HER WAY TO GHANA STOP APPEARS TO BE IN LOVE STOP INSTRUCTIONS?”

By the end of the story, Miss Waldron has been bitten by a monkey that turns out to be a new species; the detectives come for her again, and as they carry her through the jungle, she escapes: “Miss Waldron stretched, hoping to catch a branch. She imagined the trees reaching back for her. Long arms giving chase through the darkness. Her fingertips touched bark, touched fur, touched skin. Then she felt something take hold of her hands and she was lifted into the canopy.”

Throughout this collection, humans and animals touch and connect, but nowhere with this gentleness, this sense of elation as Miss Waldron gives her name to the species and disappears into the realm of myth.

“Animal Crackers” builds steadily, story by story, introducing us to a writer who has stepped off the safe ground and into realms that promise even more excitement in the years to come. *


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