By Gregory Kirschling
Updated February 21, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST

”This book is fiction except for snout salad, the bull’s pizzle, and my grandmother’s short stint as a human table in a vaudeville act,” writes Louise Erdrich in her acknowledgments, displaying the same gift for extraordinary detail and teasing indirection that makes The Master Butchers Singing Club (HarperCollins, $25.95) so marvelous. Fidelis Waldvogel walks off the German battlefield in WWI and emigrates to North Dakota, bringing with him only a suitcase full of knives and the aspiration to be a butcher. He succeeds, but this is a book in which ”Death’s rot and stink” never leaves after it arrives on page 41, when a rival butcher maliciously dumps a pile of oozing bones on the white eiderdown of the Waldvogel bed. Mrs. Waldvogel will be felled by cancer, decaying bodies uncovered, dogs assassinated, a lech gutted, a boy buried alive, another World War fought. Appropriately grim and thoughtful, ”Singing Club” is also full of tenderness and life, and Erdrich is so good at building with the littlest pieces — goulash, boars’ skulls, cigar ash, red beads, and peach juice — that her world feels realer than real.