"Anthill: A Novel"  by E.O. Wilson
Anthill

A Novel

E.O. Wilson

W.W. Norton: 378 pp., $24.95

Edward O. Wilson has studied a lot of weird creatures, from Congo eels to stinking cedars, Desmognathus salamanders to dogface butterflies. So it's fitting that the venerable biologist's first novel is itself a bizarre hybrid. "Anthill" sets out to be a coming-of-age tale, but at a deeper level it's the story of its author's frustration with the unknowable human heart.

Wilson faces a fundamental obstacle as a novelist: He doesn't believe in free will. He kicked off the contemporary debate about biological determinism with 1975's controversial book "Sociobiology." Our inner lives, he wrote in 1998's "Consilience," are actually just "scenarios of the mind" created by biology and history. Since these scenarios are "almost infinite…the self can go on passionately believing in its own free will. And that is a fortunate circumstance. Confidence in free will is biologically adaptive." (What a relief!)

How can someone who thinks like this write a novel? If it's about anything, the novel as a form is about free will. Characters act on their wills, or struggle with them, or agonize when they've been thwarted. How do you write fiction when you believe your characters' torments are just complex (albeit vastly, unimaginably complex) versions of the dumb forces guiding trees toward the sun and ants through their underground mazes?

If you're Wilson, you craft an oddball, mashed-together book that swings drastically between leadenness and lyricism. When it succeeds, "Anthill" is a delight. When it fails, it's obnoxious or just a drag.

First, the delight: the sparkling Boys' Life-style nature story that makes up the first of "Anthill's" three parts. The book traces the cycles of human and animal life around the fictitious Lake Nokobee, "one of the least developed bodies of water on the Gulf of Mexico coastal plain."

Growing up outside Mobile, Ala., in the 1980s, young Raphael "Raff" Cody knows nothing of video games or McDonald's. Instead, he treads a landscape as richly delineated as Huck Finn's Mississippi River, wading through fetid bottoms, following animal trails and skirting alligators and water moccasins.

Raff also observes various human species. His father comes from working-class stock, while his mother belongs to a sprawling Old South dynasty. From Dad, Raff gets his first lessons in hunting; from Mom — or Mom's family — he gets his tuition paid to college and, later, Harvard Law School. Through Raff, Wilson sketches the full range of human society around Mobile, from redneck gun nuts "awed by the spectacle of objects bursting into pieces at the pull of a trigger" to antebellum mansions where portraits of Confederate ancestors line the halls.

Alas, this idyll comes to an end. Raff grows up and, in perfunctory succession, goes to college, gets a law degree and returns to Mobile to fight for the land he loves. This odyssey makes up the latter third of the book, and it's interminable. Removing Raff from his beloved wilderness drains all the energy out of the story. Wilson might as well have jettisoned the whole section.

Before that, though, comes a powerful mitigation: The Anthill Chronicles.

This 75-page interlude, ostensibly part of Raff's college thesis, is the heart of "Anthill." Wilson is the world's leading authority on ants, and he sees their behavior as tidily parallel to humans'. His account of the turf wars and internal politics of four ant colonies, all sharing a patch of woods no bigger than several square yards, is supremely entertaining. It's impossible not to mourn the decline of the ancient Trailhead Colony, to feel conflicting emotions at the military success of the upstart Streamside Colony, or to root for the unprepossessing yet canny Woodlanders.

The narrative sweep of The Anthill Chronicles highlights Wilson's strangely inverted capacity for empathy. He describes his human characters vividly, but also coldly, like an entomologist pinning beetles to a piece of corkboard. The ants' struggles, on the other hand, are invested with a passion and portent that's downright Wagnerian.

Take Raff's girlfriend: She "had two of the traits scientifically considered beautiful, small chin and wide-spaced eyes, but not the third, high cheekbones… From multiple signals in her tone of voice and body language, he presumed she was not gay."

Meanwhile, back at Lake Nokobee, the future queen of the Trailhead Colony gets a far warmer introduction. "Full-brained and powerfully muscled, [she] hurried to find shelter. No sister worked side by side with the Trailhead Queen, no worker had yet been born that could support her. Outside the sisterhood of the mother colony that produced her, nature remained a battleground.")

Then there's Raff's fight with a guy in his environmental group, a "chinos-clad Californian" who disdains any form of compromise. " ‘What is this? Neville Chamberlain time?' " the perfidious Californian drawls, tossing in a few choice swear words for good measure. "Raff was speechless. This was not the Harvard way. It was trash talk you'd expect from some gang member on the street."

It's a ludicrous scene, particularly compared to the Streamside ants' enthralling assault on Trailhead: "The Trailheader nest was now a sealed and hidden bunker. [The] Streamsider army poured over its mound surface, and some of their scouts pressed on to explore the newly conquered land beyond. The siege of the Trailheader nest had begun… The nurse ants killed and cannibalized the last of the larvae and pupae, their own baby sisters … finally, no reserves were left except dwindling fat in the bodies of the huddled survivors."

It's strange to feel more compassion for an ant grub than a person, but that's all part of the book's topsy-turvy sympathies. Wilson may not think humans have free will, but he clearly wishes, even hopes, that the ants have something better. This yearning provides fertile soil for biological determinism — even if it's inhospitable to novel-writing.

Lehoczky has written for many publications, including the New York Times, the Washington Post and Money magazine.