Alessandro Boffa, , trans. from the Italian by John Casey. . Knopf, $18 (192pp) ISBN 978-0-375-40528-0

In this delightful, clever debut collection of interrelated tales, Boffa employs a variety of living creatures to demonstrate human foibles and folly. Rapidly morphing from larva to ant to Buddhist police dog, Viskovitz, the book's charming protagonist, enjoys a variety of incarnations that allow him to thoroughly explore the human condition. In one tale, Viskovitz assumes parrot form and engages in a maddening yet hilarious dialogue with other parrots that resembles Zen-tinged slapstick. He learns the perils of love and lust as an elk when, assuming the mantle of "Elkness," his waking hours are spent defending females, leaving no time for propagating the next alpha male. In the Mojave Desert, Viskovitz the scorpion adopts the patois of a western gunslinger, leaving a trail of dead scorpions in his wake along with dry observations about the nature of survival. Over all these stories, the figure of Ljuba looms. Whether shark rat, praying mantis or sow, she shines with a luminous beauty as Viskovitz's romantic beacon. Seemingly doomed to pursue her, he encounters her in every form, and true animal passion boils on the page as she bewitches and inspires him. Boffa's writing crackles with humor ("What was daddy like?" "Crunchy, a bit salty, rich in fiber") and wonderfully worded descriptions, lovingly translated by Casey (author of Spartina, winner of the 1989 National Book Award for fiction). Boffa's training as a biologist is readily apparent; the precise physiological details he provides for each embodiment of his protagonist rings with technical precision. Whimsically combining scientific lingo and specific biological argot with candid vernacular, he creates a series of engaging dichotomies of high and low, sacred and profane. (May 28)

Forecast:This is sophisticated humor in a playful package, and could attract a cultish following. Booksellers might set it alongside last season's Postmodern Pooh by Frederick Crews, which should attract a similar set of readers, though its satire (of academia) is more direct.