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.