In the first chapter of Bearskin, the accomplished and evocative debut of James A. McLaughlin, we meet a man on the run named Rice, living alone as a protector in the depths of the Appalachian landscape, battling swarms of bees and locking eyes with careening vultures. A shaggy mountain man with an indecipherably thick twang wanders onto his property, begging for water; Rice obliges, only to find his visitor with an ulterior motive: a discovery to reveal. Rice is guided through the forest, the air smelling of “hot rock” with “fence lizards skittered into dry leaves,” until he reaches their destination: the site of a bear carcass, one of “more’n a dozen” that the mountain man has seen scattered around. Rice stares at the dead animal — “struck by the human resemblance.”
Atmosphere, as its opening so impeccably indicates, is everything in Bearskin. This is not exactly the page-turning thriller so overstuffed with twists it leaves you dizzy by page 100. It’s a slow-burn by design, a tale of suspense that reels you in through McLaughlin’s scrupulous skill. There’s no escaping the mountainous isolation enveloping Rice, and as the novel pushes forward and stakes a claim in richer psychological territory, there’s no escaping the man’s tortured mind, either.
Rice, we learn first via an ambiguous prologue and then gradually as McLaughlin doles out details, worked as a mule for a brutal drug cartel and was trained as a hired killer in prison. The past’s haunting echoes turn too loud for Rice to ignore, particularly in the wake of his discovery of the conspiracy behind the dead bears — poachers killing and stripping them, selling off their organs to Asian drug markets — and the traumatic history of his predecessor, a biologist named Sara Birkeland. So begins a revenge saga, sufficiently propelled by one man’s animalistic instincts.
Ostensibly a character study, Bearskin is most satisfying as a philosophical investigation of man and nature, washed in noir. Various, seemingly unrelated subplots creep their way into the book, and McLaughlin struggles to feign genuine interest in the mechanics of the drug world and its history with Rice; in the realm of exposition, the story flattens. It’s all in service, at least, of a less conventional and infinitely more intriguing novel. Rice and his harshly beautiful surroundings fuse into one; he dreams of snakes slithering, wanders in a bloodthirsty haze like the bears dying off, succumbs to the forces of severe hunger. “Rice, for his part, had turned predatory,” goes one compelling passage. “He’d been hungry for days, but now, like the wolf in a cartoon, he began sorting the animals he encountered according to their delectability.”
McLaughlin ties the story together nicely, too, in Bearskin’s final pages, and imbues them with ghostly undertones. The conclusion, muted as it is, feels gorgeously fitting: the sight of a man turning away from humanity and embracing the wild. The book could learn a lesson from that climactic moment; it’d be better off without its most familiar beats, its reverting to genre expectations. But when its imagery, so stark and often poetic, takes center stage, Bearskin is elegiac, hypnotic — unshakable. B