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We are how we eat

Thanks to global warming and, I would argue, the current administration's environmental policy, the past four years have not been kind to animals in the wild. But they've been good ones for animals in fiction. From the Bengal tiger of Yann Martel's novel The Life of Pi to the veritable bestiary in Hannah Tinti's debut collection, Animal Crackers, critters are getting top billing in fiction these days. And it's not hard to understand why. Pushed to the margins in real life, animals are a potent moral leitmotif. They speak to us from an ever stranger beyond, and they speak to an animal part of us ever more submerged.

British writer John Barlow teases our animal nature in his fussily eccentric debut collection of novellas, Eating Mammals. Two of the novellas unfold in the Victorian era and another in the 1950s; put together, they form a skewed alternative universe where circus sideshows are aplenty and the boundary between beast and man blurs. If Edward Gorey and Flannery O'Connor were to collaborate on a book of fiction, it might wind up a lot like Eating Mammals.

The title novella, winner of the Paris Review Discovery Prize, is the strongest piece. Set just after World War II, it tells of a giant Irishman named Michael Mulligan who gained fame for his gastronomical prowess. Though not to be confused with the owner of a certain steam shovel, Mulligan could certainly give the hero of Virginia Lee Burton's classic children's book a run for its money. Over the course of the novella, Mulligan puts away a table, a chair, 60-some hot dogs, 10 kilos of roast cod _ basically anything anyone will bet him to eat.

What's fascinating about the story is how effortlessly Barlow turns what is essentially a tall tale into a powerful morality yarn. Mike gamely takes the novella's narrator under his prodigious wing, dubs him Captain Gusto and brings him on the road. As in any story of this sort _ Elizabeth McCracken's Niagara Falls All Over Again springs to mind _ there comes a moment when the mentor retires and the student moves forward. All goes well until Captain Gusto encounters an eating request so revolting it made me flip to the back of the book in search of a disclaimer that animals were not harmed in the writing. I didn't find one.

This brings us back to the title. As this novella makes clear, Eating Mammals is less about carving up a nice juicy steak than how we relate to animals, how we use them to pace the limits of our moral boundaries. In the second piece, a squirrelly little tale called The Possession of Thomas-Bessie, a cat gives birth to a kitten with wings strapped to its back, causing the pious and superstitious villagers to go a bit haywire. The cat becomes a gauge for each character's key motivating principles. One woman is sent off to an asylum after the bedraggled creature watches her make love to her fiance. Another villager promptly gives the cat a mythic name and puts it in a circus.

It's something of a relief after the ethical pinball of this piece to turn to the final novella, The Donkey Wedding at Gomersal, a fable about a widow and a widower who fall in love and celebrate by leading 32 donkeys to the altar. Like all of Barlow's clever tales, the oddly sweet tone is a ruse, and the story's finale packs a surprise.

Without giving away the ending, it's easy to say that few readers will finish the story _ or this book, for that matter _ without thinking twice about having meat served at their nuptials.

John Freeman is a writer in New York. He has no pets.

"Eating Mammals," by John Barlow, Perennial, $12.95, 266 pages.