Book of the week, Saturday July 21

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Bearskin by James A McLaughlin (Harper Collins) $35

Imagine, if you can, DiCaprio’s Revenant, with some of the Shakespearian type of language that overlay the tough events of the wonderful Deadwood, with a hint of Duelling Banjos in the background. This, I think, gives some of the feel of Bearskin, yet another first novel of high impact.

Rice Moore is a definite hero, even though, or perhaps because, he has betrayed some Mexican drug cartels, members of which are attempting to get him in their sights. Or perhaps to entrap him in their weapons of torture. He is hiding in the caretaking role of a tract of remote Virginian forest. His job is to curate the land whilst building a cabin to house a researcher. He is alone enough of the time to become a touch hazy about the nature of reality and at times has mystical, somewhat bodiless experiences.

By chance, Rice comes upon some dead bears that have been strangely hacked about. It turns out that they have had their gallbladders removed. Such bear body parts, he finds out, are much sought-after in some Asian countries, for what are believed to be various curative properties. The remainder of the plot involves Rice, as a man of honour and integrity and considerable toughness, doing something about what seems to be a murkily clandestine business.

Along the way, Rice has to deal with the painfully crude locals who would prefer their lucrative bear killing not to be interfered with. His methods are somewhat direct, rather than exactly within the bounds of the law, so the local law enforcers also have him on their radar. But he has a putative assistant in his endeavours, a young woman who preceded him in the job and who is still recovering from a gang rape, perhaps by the local “good old boys”. And so Bearskin goes on with satisfactory twists and surprises.

Plot and characters apart, it is the atmosphere and language, and the impact of the environment, that are a sheer delight page after page. The book compels not only at the time of reading, but stay with one when its covers are closed. This makes one aspect of reading the book a little awkward. One simultaneously wants to read avidly and quickly, while wishing to go slowly and savour. The result is a stuttering mixture of reading a fast chapter or two followed by finding something else to do.

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