"HOW CAN YOU SHOOT poor little Bambi?" asks the woman who has just discovered that the man on the opposite side of the dinner table is a hunter.

"Would you rather have Bambi starve?" he replies. "At the rate deer multiply --"

"So you're the angel of mercy," interrupts another antihunter, "saving the game from a terrible death."

The hunter, with his enemies ganging up on him, takes the offensive. "How can you sit there and eat that beef and say that it's wrong to eat venison?"

"That's completely different," says one of the antihunters. "Nobody slaughters a steer for the fun of it."

"I don't kill for fun either," says the hunter, "but trying to explain hunting to you is like trying to explain sex to a virgin."

Not a very good joke, and the antihunter replies in kind. "So that's it. The gun is the ultimate phallic symbol."

And here let us draw the curtain on this predictable, unseemly, and inane conversation. Anyone who cares strongly about hunting, either for or against, has probably been drawn into such an argument, for the topic touches a sore nerve. The actual public debate is even less rational than this imaginary private argument. The diehard hunter, who probably belongs to an organization that warns him repeatedly about the bleeding hearts who want to take away his guns, hangs his rifle on the rack in his bumper sticker "God, Guns, and Guts Made America Free . . . Let's Keep It That Way." His natural enemy is a symmpathizer of Cleveland Amory's "Hunt-the-Hunter's Club," a mythic organization with the motto, "If you can't play a sport, shoot one."

With so much bluff and bluster on both sides, it takes more than a little nerve to write a book which aims at being fair, balanced, and sane. The description of The Hunt on its dust jacket -- "A personal exploration of hunting in America today, and the emotions it inspires -- among passionate hunters, among lovers of the outdoors, among those who abhor hunting and are determined to see it outlawed" --suggests the book's tone and ambition, and also its dangers. Partisan readers will surely find something to offend them in the book, for John G. Mitchell challenges all the slogans, pieties, and sterotypes which both sides have used so righteously.

His bracing skepticism show itself right away. In the first section of The Hunt , he spends time riding through Michigan in a butcher's truck --"Farmer Peet's People-Pleasin' Meats" -- and talking to the driver, a bear hunter named Mummert. It happens that one of Mummert's kills was filmed for the documentary. "The Guns of Autumn," which stirred up much "prim concurrence and outraged dissent" when it was aired by CBS in 1975. Mummert is still smarting from the way he was presented. "They just cut me apart," he says. "They just made me out as a slob hunter."

Here, given a chance to speak for himself, Mummert turns out to be a strict traditionalist who hunts behind a pack of hounds; who opposes bear-baiting and deplores road-hunting; who has no use for snowmobiles, trailbikes, or anything else that smacks of technology; who is the president of an environmental organization and is regarded by some other huntners as an ecofreak; who is, in short, proud, principled, and thoughtful, a "slob" hunter only to the sort of person who believes that all hunters are slobs.

In the several pages devoted to Mummert, Mitchell does more than present the other side of the story. He places his reader in the thickets of a very tangled reality, where it is difficult to bellow out self-serving opinions. He is neither more nor less sympathetic to Mummert than he is to Jerry Owens, an enforcer for the Fund for Animals, on of the most active humane organizations, or to the dozens of others whom he interviewed. They include hunters of all stripes, game managers, officials of institutions and organizations, pollsters, legislators, and anyone else who has anything to say about hunting that is worth listening to. Mitchell listens, with an ear that is finely tuned to detect hypocrisy; he is the kind of reporter whose worst fear is that his readers will go off half-cocked.

Nothing is simple or simple-minded about The Hunt -- but then nothing is simple about hunting. The 50-page section on "subsistence" hunting in Alaska opens with a lucid account of relevant regulations the next spokesman is an Eskimo who finds all resource regulations monumentally abhorrent; the cash value of the Eskimo's annual kill of game is added up right beside its spiritual value ("We must hunt or die," an Eskimo says); and then Mitchell accompanies a group of Eskimos on a hunt for uguruk, the bearded seal, among the ice floes of the Chukchi Sea. The hunter has shot a pup but lost it in the water:

"The ice-floe fountains render the seawater fresh to a depth of twenty feet, and what goes down into it, deprived of saline buoyancy, does not soon come up. aWe tried to retrieve the pup, using a barbed, weighted niksik like a grappling hook in the water, to no avail. So many seals are lost, and few recovered, when they go like this, flopping head-shot into the unbuoyant sea. The critics of subsistence call it wanton waste, as if the loss were intentional. The hunters call it bad luck. And mourn the loss, not only for themselves but for the animal, believing, as I am told they do, that the like of an animal taken will somehow flow on through the people who use it, as long as they use it well."

In a manner that is characteristic, Mitchell brings to bear the conflicting realities -- physical, political, philosophical -- that impinge on this hunt.

The Eskimos have inherited a tradition of hunting; the sportsman must justify his hunting in a different way. Why do men hunt when they no longer have to? That question haunts Mitchell, a nonhunter, throughout the book, and he is never sure that he has found the answer. He is sure, however, that the acrimonious debate about hunting has gone on long enough. It's a debate with no winner (except, perhaps, for those who've become minor celebrities as agitators for one side or the other), and the inevitable loser is the member of the public who cares about conservation. At the present time, our wild resources are managed for the benefit of hunters, and for a very good reason -- the hunters pay the bills. Revenue from the sale of hunting licenses accounts for almost all the money spent for conservation, with the result that nonhunters have had very little influence. Only in Missouri, where a special tax has been assessed, have hunters and nonhunters alike shared in a conservation effort. The success of the Show-Me State puts to shame the wildlife programs in other states, where the sacred index of success is the annual "harvest" of game.

If you spend time outdoors, with or without a gun, you should read this book. It will help you understand why others love the outdoors, too, and how much you have in common with them. And if you regularly contribute what you can to the divisive argument about hunting, this book may be just the thing to make you step down from your soapbox.