Book of beasts
By Nick Owchar

Like many an excellent chronicler of village life, Lauren Groff gives us early in "The Monsters of Templeton" (Voice/Hyperion: 364 pp., $24.95) an ensemble view of the citizens of Templeton, a place very closely modeled on Cooperstown, N.Y., birthplace of baseball -- and Groff.

You know what an ensemble view is: an event prompting villagers to come out in force, an opportunity for the narrator's camera to move from face to face. In Cheever's "The Wapshot Scandal," for example, the story begins with a view of the town, then the narrator moves among a group of Christmas carolers, telling us a little about each in preparation for the events to come.

But early in Groff's novel, we have a different kind of gathering -- the townies come out to see the giant carcass of a monster that has floated up from the depths of Lake Glimmerglass. Our narrator, Wilhemina Upton, scans the crowd with a light tone of mockery that, by novel's end, a reader can't help but love. She sees "high school sweethearts gone paunchy and Republican," "old doctors who knew too much about my vital functions" and "my elementary school principal, a bald little elf of a man. . . ." And in the middle of this crowd, she sees herself. Next to all those faded flowers of promise, she is "Scion of the Great Temple Family," "Homecoming Queen," "Local Girl Made Good" and, with great misery, "Soon to Be Great Disappointment to All."

The monster's death coincides with Willie's (she much prefers this to her given name) unexpected return home from graduate school. A brilliant archeology student, she fell in love with her Stanford professor, had an affair with him in the Alaskan tundra, then, when the professor's wife arrived, beat it back to her hometown. Willie is in a state of incompletion -- she's unresolved about the professor, her doctoral work is unfinished, and when she touches her flat stomach, she feels the pulse of their child. In a state of denial, she calls it "The Lump" throughout the story.

Willie's pregnancy is not so different from what happened to her ex-hippie mother, Vivienne. Well, maybe a little different. For a long time, Willie believed that she was the product of "wild sex with three hippies in a commune," the daughter of three men (which has a weird echo of the Trinity). On her return home, Vi tells her that she's the child of one of Templeton's citizens. In fact, her father is someone related to Vi through one of the sprawling branches of the Templeton family tree, dating to the town's 18th century founder, Marmaduke.

Vi is reluctant to tell Willie her father's name, instead giving her clues (leading to another weird echo, this time of the story line of "Mamma Mia" -- hey, is Groff a fan of Abba?). One of the fascinating tensions pulling the reader along is Willie's detective work to determine who her father is.

Meanwhile, as Groff establishes her story line, the monster (nicknamed Glimmey by the townsfolk) floats in the shallows, photographed by news teams, investigated by biologists. Its arrival from the depths is an intriguing symbol underscoring Willie's own plunge into the past -- what monsters are hidden there? Or, as she puts it in a lovely moment early in the book, recalling a swim in the lake: "I remembered how, even on that long-ago night, I could feel a tremendous thing moving in the depths below me, something vast and white and singing."

For a column like this one, about myth and lore, it seems appropriate to say that Groff's stylish story plays in a funky way with Oedipus' search for his and his father's identities. In "The Monsters of Templeton," the role of the Sphinx is certainly played by Vi, who gives Willie riddles instead of answers. The Greek chorus would have to be the Running Buds, an ever-present group of older male joggers who speak as "we" and seem to act as the town's conscience. Then there's Willie's friend Clarissa, who sends her advice over long distances via the phone the way Minerva sent off her owl to assist those in her favor. Then there's. . . . OK, you get it. Enough.

But I also just wanted to know, what exactly is this "thing" that floats in the lake? We get plenty of descriptions of it:

"The beast was huge, a heavy cream color that darkened to lemon in places. . . . It looked like a carp grown enormous, with a carp's fat belly and round eye, but with a long, articulated neck like a ballet dancer's, and four finned legs, plump as a frog's."

One of the first on the scene, Herman Kwan, billed as a "world-famous vertebrate biologist," is positively stumped: "[W]e haven't had a discovery of this magnitude. Well, since fishermen caught a new species of coelacanth off the coast of Sulawesi in Indonesia. 1938. . . . We have simply no ideas as yet what the animal. Well, even what it is. It may be a new species entirely. It may not even have a fossil record!"

Too bad Kwan's scientific vocation limited him from consulting other sources. He might have turned to a bestiary for help.

THE BESTIARY, or "book of beasts," which was an attempt to make sense of the world's creatures, became popular in the Middle Ages. Some of the most well known -- like "The Aberdeen Bestiary" -- show us what happens when reality and imagination meet.

These lavish books, illuminated by monks, preceded more scientific efforts to catalog the animal kingdom. When the Linnaean classification arrived with its binomial setup, the emphasis on scientific specificity drove away the fanciful beasts that populated bestiaries (much like, I envision, the fiends in Milton's "Nativity Ode" being driven from their groves by the news of Christ's birth).

Bestiaries didn't distinguish, didn't discriminate -- there was room for everything. In a popular translation of one by the great Arthurian novelist T.H. White, we find the fabled and the real comfortably nestled side by side. There is the lynx, for example, sharing a page with the glorious griffin. About the lynx we learn some credible things -- "the brute is distinguished by spots on the back like a Pard" -- but also some wonderfully bizarre "facts": "They say that his urine hardens into a precious stone called Ligurius, and it is established that the Lynxes themselves realize this. . . ."

Established how? Were they seen taking their precious stones to a jeweler?

Bestiaries exhilarated such writers as Borges (who created a bestiary of sorts that is available from Viking, "The Book of Imaginary Beings") and filled the imaginations of Herodotus, Pliny the Elder and Thomas Browne. Last year, poet and novelist Nicholas Christopher published a wonderful novel, "The Bestiary" (Dial Press), about a young man's lifelong quest to find "The Caravan Bestiary," an ancient book compiling all the animals left after the biblical Great Flood.

The creature that Groff describes, with its long, fish-like body and neck, made me think first of the prehistoric fish described by Neil Shubin in "Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into the 3.5 Billion-Year History of the Human Body" (Pantheon). Then I turned to some bestiaries to consider various water creatures with necks, and none seemed to quite satisfy Groff's description either.