Guys, and c’mon talking real men here, are similar to baseball. Guys need a task. A job to do. A solid win and pride in the task. That job gets too complex? Then you go into extra innings. Bearskin is a true man’s novel. Part crime thriller, part observational literature. Tactical. Contemplative. Silent. Compelling. You get the occasional home-run fireworks, but such shoot ‘em ups occur in a completely Jim Jarmusch kinda way.
The real man in this tale is Rice Moore. He’s the caretaker of a privately-owned preserve, rebuilding a lodge nail-by-nail, and in his spare time logs flora, fauna, and water bugs. He drinks cold Coors under the hot sun, draws up creative ways to stop bear poaching, and is not beyond taking magic mushrooms to get more in tune with nature.
Bearskin, James McLaughlin’s exciting debut, is a slow burn of a novel, but by no means is a slow read.
McLaughlin allows Moore, and the reader, to thoughtfully explore the landscape. A 21st century pioneer who has abandoned streaming services to reconnect with actual streams, to count the birds, to rescue snakes, and pet a dog or two. Worry not. This isn’t all Thoreau 101. Rice, of course, is a jailbird with a past, and he’s man enough to admit that his current Appalachia gig has him well off the cartel’s grid. McLaughlin is more than content to have him exercise his predatory brain than primordial brawn. And yes, in his quest to get answers he punches out a few tough hombres. But it’s not like they didn’t have it coming to them. Right?
Like every hard-edged man seeking an escape, fate comes knocking, but Moore is strong enough not to open the door; he’s fine with peeking through the window. Or through a homemade ghillie suit, which allows him to spy on hunters and prey alike. McLaughlin handles his narrative similarly. Moore doesn’t go all A-Team on cartoonish hicks and bikers. He observes. He contemplates. And sometimes even ignores. But as reader? You’re okay with all that. The story moves, strolls, basically walks. Any RBIs are a cool breeze that wakes you up, ready for the next at bat.
Bearskin is definitely the long ball play that is so good, you want that experience to extend. But it doesn’t. And last call comes way too soon. The abrupt ending fails to satisfy the past life on the run but does give Moore his at-home victory before the lights click off.