Rick Morton is caretaker and science tech for over seven thousand acres of private nature preserve, a large chunk of which is old-growth forest. He is also Rice Moore, an ex-con on the run from the Cartel.
Bearskin is gorgeously written but understated. It’s literary without sacrificing plot. It’s bloody without being mindless. It contains a touch of the supernatural (maybe) and a touch of the surreal. It walks a fine line between the people and the place of the mountains of Virginia.
Moore’s plan was never going to work. The Cartel is too diligent. There is a reason why the owner was so willing to hire an ex-con, a guy who looks like he can take of himself, like Viggo Mortenson. But more The Road than Lord of the Rings.
And Moore is not the sort of man to look the other way when a one-armed mountain man tells him about bear poaching—galls and paws—on the property.
Rice Moore was a biology student who got in over his head. It got his girlfriend killed, and it got him screwed by the Feds and the Cartel. The former put him in prison, where he got a little sicario training, based on boredom and Moore possessing “a powerful will to survive, a latent capacity for violence, a willingness to kill,” but the Cartel was perfectly willing to use him as a sacrificial pawn.
Fleeing the Cartel and the desert for the mountains of Virginia doesn’t exactly make him safe. He finds himself a part of a tension between locals and large, absentee landowners that is as old as white settlement of Appalachia. Defending the preserve will mean crossing ornery locals and biker gangs alike. And there are a lot of ways that word of his location can find its way back to Cartel ears . . .
Bearskin is comfortably a country noir, but it manages that while adding a deep ecological bent and the Cartel angle—an accomplishment all the more impressive because McLaughlin makes it look easy. Each works without detracting from the other two.
The writing is a big selling point. McLaughlin gives us beautiful, evocative prose without being showy:
“On the far side lay Serrett Mountain hazy and plump, and after that the wild Appalachians went on and on, folded blue-green ridges one after the other all the way to the horizon.”
“This was his first summer in the Virginia mountains, and he found the humidity surreal and enervating. The air was palpable, buzzing with insects, and day or night the slightest breeze carried some fragrance: wet grass, honeysuckle, putrefaction.”
The stress compounded on stress leads Moore into a surreal state that provides some of McLaughlin’s writing. An even neater trick, I think, is how McLaughlin uses that to obscure an implied supernatural aspect to the story. This is something I would love to see more of. Fantasy writers avoid the surreal, presumably feeling the need to fall firmly on the other side of reality. Country noir, though, is well-suited for playing with that line (Ron Rash has done a bit with this).
It has been a few months at this point since I read Bearskin. With a looming trip to Southern Appalachia, I’m sorely tempted to pick it back up for a reread already. It’s that good.
5 of 5 Stars.
Jim Cornelius on Bearskin at Frontier Partisans.
Gabino Iglesias on Bearskin at Criminal Element.
Mike Finn on Bearskin at Mike Finn’s Fiction.