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BOUND TO PLEASE / A fugitive in the forest faces criminal and natural mysteries

The Japan News

Tom Baker / Japan News Staff WriternBearskin

By James McLaughlin

Ecco, 343pp

A man named Rice, having been attacked by bees, looks at what one of them has left behind: “A bulb of bee guts, attached to a tiny barbed stinger. All these bees had jammed their stingers into his skin and pulled away, leaving behind vital organs, and flown off to die … He held the stinger in the sunlight, close to his face, looking for his future there, extispicy in miniature.”

This was the first of several passages in the novel “Bearskin” that sent me to the dictionary. Extispicy, I learned, is divination by animal entrails. It’s a rare word, but a fitting one, as Rice has good reason to wonder what the Fates have in store.

The novel opens with a brief, violent scene in a Mexican prison, which shows that Rice has a past he needs to get away from. But most of the book takes place in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, far from Mexico, where he has found a job — under an assumed name — as the solitary caretaker of a vast wilderness preserve. He hopes his isolated woodland existence will keep him safe from certain parties with shaved heads and Aztec tattoos, who hold a deadly grudge against him.

His solitude begins to crumble when a gang of poachers start shooting bears in the area, skinning them and cutting out their purportedly medicinal gall bladders for the black market. Rice’s past makes it risky for him to contact law enforcement, so he decides to track down and confront the gang himself. Things are sure to end badly for someone.

“Bearskin” is the debut novel of James McLaughlin, whose back-flap biography says he grew up in rural Virginia and whose affinity for odd lexical gems like extispicy — as well as condyle, umwelt and minatory — will occasionally remind some readers of Michael Chabon or Cormac McCarthy.

Of course, a good writer can make a vivid impression without obscure words, as McLaughlin does in poetic passages such as his description of soaring buzzards gazing down at “the land unrolling like a map beneath them, a road atlas with thick, bloodred lines for the cornucopian highways.”

Closer to the ground, Rice watches the forest as “a fresh breeze brushed against the big tulip trees, red oaks, sugar maples. Heavy branches rose and fell in slow motion, and a million leaves twisted on their stems, showing silver underneath. The forest was eerily animate, a gigantic green beast dreaming, its skin twitching and rippling. Not quite threatening, but powerful.”

Rice spends a lot of time observing the forest, and he begins to feel that he is being observed in turn. Is he being watched by hidden bears? By stealthy poachers? Or by those that another character cryptically refers to as the “Many Others” of the forest?

There will be violence as the answers are revealed, but the story is as much about Rice’s evolution as a mountain mystic who feeds on wild honey as it is about his campaign as a bushwhacking vigilante. As the map of those intertwined journeys unrolls, the scenery it reveals is beautiful.

Where to Read

In the woods, with your back against a big tree. Come home before dark.

Maruzen price: ¥4,483 plus tax

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