Book Reviews | Literary Arts

James McLaughlin’s Bearskin is a Hallucinatory Literary Thriller as Much About the Wilds of the Forest as the Poaching That Takes Place There

In James A. McLaughlin’s debut novel Bearskin, Rice Moore must choose to preserve his personal safety in anonymity or risk exposure by trying to catch the people responsible for the illegal killings of bear. The book is a plot-driven yet meaningful story of justice and redemption set in the wilderness of rural Virginia. Moore has recently relocated there to escape a troubled and dangerous past but discovers someone is poaching the wildlife of the preserve he is responsible to manage and protect. McLaughlin doesn’t spare us from the optics:

The creature was skinned and naked, its muscles red and wrinkled where the fascia had started to dry. The abdomen had been slit and the vultures had pulled out pale, ropy loops of intestine. All four limbs ended in polished white condyles at the wrist and ankle joints. Rice stared, struck by the human resemblance. After a few minutes he felt able to speak. It’s a bear?

McLaughlin, who holds law and MFA degrees from the University of Virginia, grew up in the mountains of Virginia and now lives in the Wasatch Range east of Salt Lake City. He is very friendly and happy to discuss his book as well as his thoughts on writing.

“I’m fond of the chapters where the main character stays out in the woods too long and transforms into what my editor called a scat-covered, fugue-induced mountain man,” McLaughlin says of a section of the novel that is particularly meaningful to him. The protagonist finds himself alone in the wilderness, searching for clues and learning important lessons about his relationship to the natural world in the process. “I feel there’s something profound going on in the hallucinatory encounters with the forest, the wildlife, and an itinerant mushroom-picker, something hard to describe without coming across as slightly unhinged,” he continues. The solitary days Rice spends in the wilderness provide contrast to the thrilling pace of the rest of the book:

His thoughts had become inarticulate, the talking man-voice inside his head silenced by hunger and sleep deprivation, by too much time alone in the woods, by whatever it was that had been gradually possessing him for months. This morning, walking among the trees of the inner gorge, he’d felt something clutch the back of his neck and lift him like a kitten. It carried him alongside the columnar trunks and up into the lower branches. Below a bedraggled man in ghillie camouflage, dim green light falling around him, his blackened face childish and lost.

 These somewhat surreal passages — real or imagined, we don’t know — invite the reader to consider their own relationship with nature before jumping back to the action of the larger story. “This part of the book tends to stump some readers and reviewers, especially those who come to the book with conventional mystery/thriller expectations,” he reports. “Others tell me it’s their favorite part.”

The author explores the essence of man’s relationship to nature through contrasting descriptions of the environment. In some instances the forest and mountains conjure an image of a scenic, verdant oasis. At other times the same locations are cold and brutal, described along with the putrid, decaying flesh of poached wildlife. At one point Moore experiences a meditative state in which he feels as though he has completely merged with his surroundings. In other moments he slips, falls, gets injured on rocks, loses his bearings, or struggles against steep inclines. McLaughlin explains: “There are a number of secondary themes in the book — mostly having to do with the fraught relationship between Homo sapiens and the world we inhabit — that I hope some readers pick up, but only on the second reading. I worked hard to avoid slowing down the story with self-indulgent authorial philosophizing.”

Some details within Bearskin have personal significance for the author. “The date written on the wall of a country store showing how high the floodwaters rose,” he explains, “matches the date of a real flood in the county where I grew up… and the name of the fictional county in Bearskin is taken from a character in a ghost story that has been told at my family’s summer camp for over half a century.” Inclusion of personal details like these makes the novel a uniquely intimate creative piece.

Bearskin is more than your average thriller; it’s a work of literary fiction. John Williams of the New York Times agrees:  “The book combines intensely observed nature writing with white-knuckle suspense … Picture Thoreau having left for Walden with a bunch of bad dudes hot on his heels.” McLaughlin’s precise and effectual writing can accurately be described as lyrical prose, representing a balance of action and art, not unlike the work of Jim Harrison, the late “lit-grit” author whom McLaughlin admires.

The creative process for this debut novel was lengthy, with multiple revisions and modifications says McLaughlin. “I wrote the first iteration of the novel in the ‘90s, and then came back to it circa 2007 and rewrote the first few chapters as a novella. Several years after the novella was published, I decided to extend it into a novel.” The setting, the poaching, and the isolation remained the same as in the original story but the characters, the voice, and the plotline all changed significantly over the years.

McLaughlin is currently working on another book related to the characters and events of Bearskin, with a third novel in process as well.  There will certainly be additional adventures in store for Rice Moore. Meanwhile, Bearskin has been nominated for the 15 Bytes Book Award for 2019, the winner of which will be announced this summer. You can listen to an excerpt of it here.


Bearskin: A Novel
James A. McLaughlin
Ecco/Harper Collins
352 pp.

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