Bearskin by James A. McLaughlin, review by Bruce Jacobs
If an environmental scientist wants to be alone to study an undisturbed native ecosystem, the family-owned Turk Mountain Nature Preserve in Virginia's Appalachians is not a bad place to be. If he needs to hide from a vindictive Mexican cartel sicario 2,000 miles away, on the Arizona/Sonora border, its 7,000 fenced acres seem ideal. As the protagonist of James McLaughlin's near-perfect first novel, Bearskin, 34-year-old Rice Moore is that guy. With his old hippie family boss living in California, a new alias and the Preserve's rotary phone unplugged, the brooding, reclusive Moore thinks he is safely off the grid. He gets his few groceries down the valley in Blakely and sees the locals only when stopping for a burger at the roadside Beer & Eat.
Caretaker, science tech, handyman and unofficial game warden, Moore keeps to himself, "employing a human analogue to the behavioral strategies of certain prey species: drab coloring, quiet habits, never leaving cover, avoiding conflict." One summer morning, a mysterious, one-armed mushroom picker silently emerges from the woods to lead him to the skinned, mutilated carcass of a bear. Turns out there is a lot more going on in Moore's little kingdom than the forest's "powerful cacophony... [of] lonesome trills and chirps, amphibian screams, the rhythmic shake-shake of katydids... all the little creatures trying to have sex with each other."
Much as natural beauty can mask predator/prey violence, McLaughlin's lush descriptions of the native flora and fauna of Moore's mountain domain, the "fecund riot of chest-high bluestem and orchard grass," seductively create what could be a setting out of Elizabeth Gilbert's The Signature of All Things. With Moore's discovery of more mutilated bears, however, a tale of natural science and rugged independence soon becomes one of hillbilly crime and poverty, of "trailer homes behind fixer-up muscle cars and four-bys on blocks," of tweakers poaching bears to sell their paws and gall bladders to rich Asians. As Moore finds himself increasingly entangled in local rivalries and biker gang violence, McLaughlin smoothly reveals the story of Moore's history of muling for the cartels ("a multimodal approach to smuggling... low-mass, moderate-to-high-value assets both ways") with the realism of a Don Winslow border novel.
A land conservation lawyer with an MFA from the University of Virginia, McLaughlin helped manage his family's 1,500-acre preserve near the state's Jump Mountain. He knows his characters' habits and language: calling the sheriff about a trespasser is "lawing" him; an assassination shooting is a "Mozambique"; a pistol shoved in the waistband is a "Mexican-carry"; and hunting camouflage is a homemade "ghillie poncho." While his novel may echo literary antecedents, it is McLaughlin's very own carefully crafted tale of mystery, ecology, backwoods mysticism and downright evil. Both meandering and galvanizing, pensive and tumultuous, Bearskin is a consummately skillful debut.
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.