James A. McLaughlin has set his exciting first novel not far from us, in the mountains of southwestern Virginia, but his characters do not consider bears nuisances. In fact, some of the locals in “Bearskin” hunt the animals for profit. Shortly after becoming caretaker of the privately owned Turk Mountain Preserve, McLaughlin’s protagonist, Rice Moore, discovers bear carcasses denuded of their skins and missing their gallbladders. A helpful neighbor explains that “the mafia . . . pay two thousand dollars for one gall, grind up the gall salt and sell it to the Chinese for medicine.”
Rice is no great upholder of the law in general — he has come to Virginia fresh from a stint as a mule for a drug cartel straddling the Arizona-Mexico border. Nonetheless, he is fiercely protective of his new territory, all the more so because his immediate predecessor, a young woman, was raped during her tenure as caretaker. While trying to catch the poacher, Rice meets resistance from the locals because of whom he works for: “wealthy outsiders” who own Turk Mountain and seek to impose a “nonsensical and elitist” preservation ethic on its users.
Another complication looms. Rice is pretty sure the cartel will be coming after him, for reasons that are revealed in stages, as he flashes back to his time in Arizona. To be on the safe side in Virginia, he goes by a pseudonym, says little about his past and fortifies his on-site cabin as stoutly as his budget will allow.
Rice’s situation — the stickling intruder bent on curtailing the freedom of action customarily enjoyed by denizens of a backwater — may be nothing new to readers of suspense fiction, but Rice himself is full of surprises. I’ve already noted the contrast between his shady past and his righteous present. He also engages in an extraordinary form of woodcraft: making himself a “ghillie suit,” a camouflaging outfit woven from grass, branches and cotton.
Most oddly, Rice accepts an offer of magic mushrooms at a time when he needs all of his wits. (As the author acknowledges in an understatement, “Rice was unclear exactly how the shrooms were going to help him find the bear poacher.”) Traditionally, when a hero copes with blurred vision and rebellious limbs, it’s because he’s been slipped a Mickey by a dame. But here’s Rice, exponentially increasing the danger to himself by willingly ingesting psychedelics. As a result, he suffers serious bodily harm and has no idea how his opponent fared. Which suggests a new reason to just say no — if you indulge, you won’t know whether you can truthfully say, “You should’ve seen the other guy.”
Rice’s behavior may not always compute, and keeping track of his partially told sagas — what happened in Arizona, what happened after the mushrooms took effect, what’s happening right now on Turk Mountain — can be a chore. Holding the book together is Rice’s passion for the natural world. He conjures up a scene from his time in the Sonoran Desert, where he gazed up at saguaro cactuses by the thousands, “tall, humanoid, resigned, holding up their arms . . . it looked like the people who lived in [Tucson] had climbed up on the hills and were just standing there watching, waiting for the end of the world.” And in Virginia he watches two ravens circle above him, “quorking to each other, glinting like chips of obsidian in the sunlight.” Rice seldom leaves his Turk Mountain cabin without encountering some new and marvelous feature of the wilderness around him.
“Bearskin”comes into its own in the last hundred pages, by which time all the backstories have been told and the cartel’s hit man has reached the preserve. Like a slow-motion cinematographer, McLaughlin skillfully breaks down the actions of hunter and hunted into their constituent parts. And anyone who has ever scratched his head at the sight of soldiers in camouflage riding the Washington Metro (what do they think they’re blending in with?) will appreciate the moment when the coming dawn changes Rice’s ghillie suit from protective cover to attention-getting anomaly.
“Bearskin,” then, may call for a little patience from the reader. But stick with the novel and you’ll be rewarded with some of the best action writing in recent fiction.
Dennis Drabelle is a former mysteries editor of Book World.
By James A. McLaughlin
Ecco. 343 pp. $26.99