USA TODAY US Edition - - LIFE -

By James A. McLaugh­lin Ecco, 352 pp.

“En­vi­ron­men­tal­ist fic­tion” sounds like such a drearily earnest genre. Re­cently, how­ever, ma­jor nov­el­ists (An­nie Proulx, Richard Pow­ers) have been tak­ing it in ex­cit­ing new di­rec­tions. “Bearskin,” a pow­er­ful and of­ten pro­found de­but of the same cal­iber by James A. McLaugh­lin, weaves its story into the eter­nal, vul­ner­a­ble mys­tery of the wild. McLaugh­lin’s hero, Rice Moore, is the keeper of a Vir­ginia na­ture pre­serve, and glad of the pri­vacy – for rea­sons not wholly his fault, a car­tel is after him. Then, though, he starts find­ing bear car­casses, and is forced out of his soli­tude to de­ter­mine whether it’s the mis­chief of lo­cal bik­ers (there’s a black mar­ket trade in the an­i­mals’ gall­blad­ders and paws, it emerges) or some­thing scarier. From these ba­sic ma­te­ri­als, “Bearskin” con­structs a riv­et­ing nar­ra­tive, set within a nat­u­ral world that, should it van­ish, McLaugh­lin sug­gests, might take part of us with it.

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