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How the big cat thinks

THE large and malevolent tiger at the center of this nonfiction hunting tale bears a striking resemblance to fictional seafaring predecessors.

The structure of John Vaillant's book echoes that of "Moby-Dick," alternating a gripping chase narrative with dense explanations of the culture and ecology surrounding that chase. "Jaws" fans will recognize the dramatic strategy of keeping the beast offstage as much as possible to allow terror to fill in the blanks, as well as a certain lurid detail at the book's end, which I won't reveal.

What makes "The Tiger" a grand addition to the animal-pursuit subgenre is the sensitive way in which journalist Vaillant evokes his cat. Few writers have taken such pains to understand their monsters, and few depict them in such arresting prose.

Vaillant writes about the difficulty of tracking a tiger that doesn't want to be found. When the tiger stalks, the book soars; when it hides, the book sags, but only a little. Vaillant is an obsessive researcher who marshals his battalion of facts in service to the story, which is a nice way of saying that some of this book can be rough going, but it's all interesting and it pays off.

It's the late 1990s in the Primorye region on Russia's far-eastern border, home to a human population devastated by the fallout from perestroika and a few hundred Amur tigers.

The largest tiger subspecies, the Amur in Primorye, don't eat people. That is, until one very big, very smart animal breaks the Primorye's longstanding people-tiger truce, acquiring a taste for humans and satisfying that taste in ugly fashion. Enter Yuri Trush, the commander of a tiger-preservation team, who must now destroy this tiger.

While Trush tries to solve the mystery of where the tiger is, Vaillant tries to solve the mystery of why the tiger went rogue. To do this, he takes the reader deep into the tiger's world, creating an intimate portrait of its inner life.

Nonfiction writers usually deal with words and actions, not thoughts. It takes a certain amount of chutzpah for a journalist to tell us what a human is thinking, much less a tiger. But here's where all that extensive research comes in handy. Vaillant knows so much about the Primorye, its tigers and this particular tiger that he's able to draw plausible conclusions.

Like this explanation of why the tiger ? which is said to have enjoyed lying down on one victim's mattress ? awaits its prey in a cabin: "Building on his success with cabin stakeouts and with mattresses, he combined the two here in a way that also warmed him in the process."

Vaillant struggles, however, to make the people and the place of the story as vivid as the cat. He seems humbled by the cruel environment he's chosen to work in. The Primorye is just too foreign. The geography remains indistinct, the people remote and with a disorienting thicket of names. In the end, it's the tiger alone that burns bright.


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