The Zoo Where You’re Fed to God

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

James Abbey is a surgeon whose wife has left him. In his solitude, he becomes aware of animals, first those around his house (cat, raccoon, owl, and, in a moment of epiphany, a face-to-face meeting with a coyote) and then those in the Los Angeles zoo.

Abbey experiences the animals in a way that mixes his scientific training, his experience as a surgeon, and a totemic mysticism. His scientific training leads him to reflect on the inexorable nature of evolution. He concludes that the human race’s destruction of the ecosystem, and therefore probably, of itself, is an expression of God. Abbey moralizes, but his chief obsession is to gain insight. His experience as a surgeon has made him fatalistic; he knows that his work, and all it implies, is an inevitable part of life. What frightens him, however, is that his insights have an undeniably irrational dimension. He is hearing a voice.

His wife thinks he is crazy and tries to keep him away from his son, but the boy is suffering from a psychic dislocation of his own, which first manifests itself as insomnia. Abbey also encounters a young woman, Lee, less than twenty-four years old, who wears a leather jacket, Doc Martens, and light cotton skirts. She plays in a band and works as a cashier.

Ventura’s novel has areas of strength and areas of weakness. Two great strengths are its compelling rendering of James Abbey’s mental life (or nervous breakdown or intimation of transcendence or psychic upheaval) and its portrait of Lee. One area of weakness is perhaps a natural consequence of the novel’s tremendous philosophical and thematic ambitions: It more than once lapses into phoniness. This occurs, for example, in the scenes in which Abbey and his eleven-year-old son trade cosmic insights in clipped, detective-novel exchanges and in which the romance develops between the very middle-aged James and the young, hip Lee. Perhaps Ventura thinks that such relationship can be an irony-free event, but it does seem unlikely.