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