INTO THE HEART

One Man's Pursuit of Love and Knowledge Among the Yanomama

By Kenneth Good With David Chanoff

Simon and Schuster. 349 pp. $22.95

To anyone who's ever dreaded a holiday trek to visit the in-laws, consider the burden of Kenneth Good. From New Jersey, he and his wife and two children must fly to Caracas, Venezuela. There, he can book a smaller plane to Puerto Ayacucho, the gateway to the Venezuelan Amazon, at which point he must find a bush pilot willing to fly him to the mission encampment of La Esmeralda. Then he has to charter a small boat to take him up the headwaters of the Orinoco River, being particularly careful to navigate the Guajaribo Rapids, beyond which almost no one in his right mind would travel.

Of course when he gets there, his wife's family may not be home. The Yanomama are a semi-nomadic tribe who comb the forest in search of food several times a year. But when he finds them, they can all sit down and share a meal of wild boar and roasted plantains, talk over old times and argue about all the things families argue about.

The most extraordinary thing about this oddly engrossing book is the very ordinary way in which it portrays its characters. Stripped of the exotic setting and the very real hardships of life in a remote jungle, "Into the Heart" makes the simple but profound point that human beings are essentially the same, whatever their culture.

Good is an anthropologist who became consumed by his subject. As a young graduate student he traveled to the Venezuelan Amazon to study the Yanomama Indians, supposedly one of the least civilized and most violent tribes on earth. What he found was something quite different. Going beyond the surface study of most academics and journalists, he lived with the tribe off and on for a decade, learned the language and adopted its customs, including accompanying the people on grueling hunting expeditions.

He also fell in love. Following a suggestion by the group's leader that he get betrothed according to Yanomama custom (an offer he at first declined), Good found that affection for Yarima turned into romance and the two were married when she turned 14. Good then had to battle the clash of her world with his to sustain the relationship. He details the harrowing natural and man-made calamities that kept them apart -- sort of a jungle version of "West Side Story" except with a more hopeful ending. Eventually they moved to the United States.

The book, written with veteran author David Chanoff, is a crisply told tale, but it's not literature. That's often disappointing because Good had access to a complex realm of nature that few people have ever seen, yet his descriptions of the places and the people are thin. There is also no sense of the politics of Indian survival -- the Yanomama tribes in Brazil, for instance, are being decimated by the encroachment of gold miners and settlers.

But in his own way perhaps Good has accomplished more than all the anguished editorials by environmentalists and benefit concerts by the likes of Sting. The Indians in Good's book aren't political pawns, they aren't museum pieces, or circus freaks, or noble savages. They aren't "The Fierce People" of a famous but, according to Good, misguided study. They are merely his family. And despite the fact that they have lived for thousands of years in primitive isolation, that they wear no clothes and push sticks through their lips, you're left with the inescapable conclusion that they're human beings, not all that different from anyone else.

The worst people are the scheming Venezuelan bureaucrats and Good's fellow academics. In particular, he scorches the author of "The Fierce People," his former professor, Napoleon Chagnon, for shoddy scholarship that has left the world with a portrait of sub-human savages.

In the end, love triumphs. You've heard the story a thousand times. Only in this version the boy happens to be a middle-class kid from the suburbs of Philadelphia, the girl from one of the most primitive Indian tribes in the world. It's no big deal. And that's why Good's tale is a very big deal indeed.

The reviewer is the editor of Regardie's magazine and co-author of "Amazon."