Friday, August 24, 2018

Bearskin by James A. McLaughlin: A review

I've been reading a number of debut novels recently and most of them have been enjoyable reading experiences. It really is quite remarkable how many talented writers there are out there who are just getting started in their careers. It seems that we are living in a golden age of fiction. Lucky us!

And now here comes another first novel and it, too, is a winner. There were a lot of things that I really liked about James A McLaughlin's Bearskin

His protagonist is originally from Arizona but is on the run from the Sinaloa drug cartel and, because of a scanty background in science, has managed to secure a job as the caretaker of a remote private forest preserve in the Virginia Appalachians. Some of my favorite passages in the book come from this caretaker's (Rice Moore aka Rick Morton) observations of the ecological system in which he works. I found those observations particularly interesting because these are the flora and fauna that I grew up with and which were my first loves in Nature, and the writer's descriptions of them were spot on. From spotted salamanders to orb weaver spiders to skunks and deer and vultures and chickadees, I loved reading about these things which were the stuff of Rice/Rick's everyday life. In this sense, McLaughlin's writing reminded me quite a lot of Nevada Barr. It reveals the same environmental ethic. 

Listen to how he writes of the giant trees that make up the forest:
"The giant trees were like dormant gods, vibrating with something he couldn’t name, not quite sentience, each one different from the others, each telling its own centuries-long story. On the forest floor, chestnut logs, dead since the blight, had rotted into chest-high berms soft with thick mosses, whispering quietly. Something called out and he turned to face a looming tulip tree, gnarled and bent like an old man, hollowed out by rot, lightning, ancient fires. 
His skin tingled.”
My skin tingled just reading that.

At a certain point in the narrative, Rice/Rick goes into the forest chasing bear poachers who are illegally killing black bears and removing their gallbladders and paws for the Asian market, leaving the rest of the body to rot. He stays in the forest for days, without food, barely sleeping and this deprivation of nourishment and sleep induces in him a kind of hallucinatory state. He has a mystical experience in which he seems to be flying. It reminded me of Carlos Castaneda's The Teachings of Don Juan. Rick (we'll call him that since that's what he currently calls himself) seems to recreate Carlos's experience with peyote and mushrooms without resorting to the use of those substances.

Rick's interactions with the local residents are intermittent and tinged with a threat of violence, not least because we learn that the previous caretaker, a woman, had been beaten, gang raped, and left for dead. Most of the people that he meets seem ignorant and brutish. He remarks on their attitude toward the rich natural environment in which they live:
“He found it puzzling that so many rural people were hostile to, even terrified of, the place where they lived. It wasn't just that hard-working country folk had no time for the precious concerns of the effete urban environmentalists, what amazed Rice was how you could spend your whole life physically immersed in a particular ecological system and yet remain blinded to it by superstition, tradition, prejudice. Out west, it was ranchers' holy war on predators and their veneration of Indo-European domestic animals they husbanded on land too dry to support them. Here in the Appalachians, you saw rugged country men who refused to walk in the woods all summer because they were scared of snakes.”
Yes, I know people like that and it's only a small part of their belief system based on fear. 

So, my favorite parts of the book were the descriptions of Nature and Rick's interactions and responses to the natural world. I was somewhat less impressed by the mystery/thriller part of the narrative, and there were one or two unexplained holes in the plot or characters that were introduced and seemed important, only to vanish. (Whatever happened to that mushroom picker?) But, on the whole, this was a creditable effort. I don't know if McLaughlin planned this as the first in a series, but there's plenty of material there if he wants to go that route.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

4 comments:

  1. This is my second encounter with this book. I learned of it via Susan @ The Cue Card. Both of you were impressed by the nature writing. From your quotes, the writing strikes me as vivid. I thought this was a memoir of sorts because of Rick running from a drug cartel; that angle seems authentic enough. I'm glad you liked it overall.

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    1. I believe the writer is from Virginia and he obviously has a deep understanding of and appreciation for the ecological system of the Appalachian area.

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  2. I can take a few weaknesses when the nature writing is good and sincere. It sounds like that is the case here. I must admit, I am put off by the cover even though I care about the bears. I am putting this one on my list of books published in 2018.

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    1. Rick cares about bears, too. That bear on the cover is one who got into a beehive - note the bees buzzing around his head - in the wall of a cabin he was rehabbing. It’s not a sad reference.

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