Somebody must have kicked the reading machine in my head real hard, because it’s working overtime at the moment. I suppose it’s the very real threat of having to read up on plotless educational policy and classroom management that is making fiction so damned attractive at this point in time. With lessons well underway and the dreaded Numeracy Skills Test now but a distant memory, the next task looming is the first of the PGCE written assignments – perhaps the first written assignment in my life that I will not be able to wing on the back of a clunky box of quirky and otherwise useless general knowledge. My capacity for absurdity became something of a badge of honour at university as I made it a personal prerogative to shoehorn the most bizarre comparisons into every essay I submitted. Samurai and pashtunwali found their way into an essay on Lope de Vega. The sea witch from The Little Mermaid popped up in an assignment on La Celestina. The Sack of Baltimore somehow drifted into a commentary on Spanish banditry. And then there was that unforgiveable allusion to the nest-building practices of great-crested grebes in a second-year Spanish language exam on cultural divisions (I got scorched for that one, justifiably, and I don’t think it was because my examiners stumbled over the word somormujo).
Nope. This is one essay that I will have to write with my own blood. And my head will not thank me for it.
So, conscious that I will scarcely have the time to do my own writing this year, I shall endeavour to persevere with my reading project. After muscling through Thin Air in forty-eight hours (a personal record), I threw myself right into another. This time around, I thumbed around for something different and picked James A. McLaughlin’s Bearskin off the shelf…
“Gruesomely gorgeous” is certainly one way of putting it (New York Times Book Review). Bearskin tells the tale of Rice Moore, an Arizona ex-con working as a caretaker on the Turk Mountain preserve in the forests of Virginia whose decision to get to the bottom of a local bear-hunting operation brings him into conflict with the locals, the law, and ghosts from his past. At times hard-edged thriller of the “Dark South”, at others a quasi-mystical exploration of man in the wilderness, Bearskin is a powerful retelling of the lone-man-standing-up-for-the-forest genre, without the ego or distasteful pessimism of the twenty-first century eco-warrior. Rice makes for an appealing hero, a man with no illusions on whom the forest works its magic. Some of the characters are satisfyingly familiar: a John Wayne, no-bullshit sheriff; a thickset Redneck patriarch and his lawless, swaggering sons; a psychopathic assassin who says nothing and yet instils more fear at the mention of his name than any other man in the book. And then there are the others: Dempsey Boger and his hounds, the ethereal mushroom-picker and, of course, the bears themselves.
There are points in the narrative – fugues – when you cannot be entirely certain which world you are in. When the forest takes on a mysterious character of its own and colours and images swim before your eyes in unfamiliar patterns, and time seems to flow in both directions at once. Moore’s ghillie-clad seclusion on the mountain is ritualistic and deliberately so, serving in a sense as an awakening. It was almost stupefying to read. I’ve never taken magic mushrooms myself, but I felt like I had after one of the scenes. Trips may well be relatively easy to recreate through the medium of film, but McLaughlin certainly knows how to write one.
There was only one thing I was left wanting from the story, and that was something more about the bears. They serve as a springboard for the main events of the narrative, but I caught myself waiting for a gratifying (if cliched) encounter with one of the bears at some point towards the end. One gets the sense they are always there, on the periphery of Rice’s world, more like ghosts than creatures of flesh and blood. And perhaps that much is true of the wild, as man and his endless pursuit for dominance pushes such spirits further and further into oblivion. All the same, I reckon the bears might have appreciated some closure.
The hellish image of the baiting scene deserves a special mention for its sheer monstrosity: the pawless, gutted carcasses of two bears beneath the totemic severed head of a Charolais, suspended from the trees above by a bloody rebar driven through its eyes. The buzz of flies above, the growl of worrying hounds below and the sickly stench of liquorice. I’d like to give a hand to the stalking scene towards the end for its pace and power, but this static freeze-frame is just one of those scenes that will stay lodged in your mind’s eye forever. Some stories produce characters of eternal weight, others moments of utter majesty, and others still paint pictures with flesh, blood and the stuff of nightmares. There’s a lot of human villainy in Bearskin, but the baiting scene takes the biscuit. Somehow the absence of the perpetrators does the trick: the aftermath is far worse in its silence than the act itself.
The mushroom picker. McLaughlin strings out a strongly convincing cast of Southern marionettes in Bearskin, but there is one oddity in the bunch who, like the pip of a blackberry, sticks in your jaw long after the cast has come and gone. I was never entirely sure whether he was real or not – and neither am I alone in my doubt, as Rice himself asks this question at least once – but his brief appearances were memorable, to say the least. Who was he? Where did he come from? Was he a mountain man, or something stranger – a vengeful woodland sprite or god, a green man, released from the deepwoods to send the protagonist on a quest? When first he appeared, Rice mistook him for a bear – a mistake he made again on the mushroom picker’s second appearance. To my eyes he is certainly more Beorn than Bombadil, and whatever the author intended him to be, he comes across as by far the most enigmatic and powerful character to emerge from McLaughlin’s narrative.
Information about the universe leaked from the open eye like poison gas.
“So many people hate snakes. I think it’s because they threaten people’s worldview – they’re alien, limbless, impossible, black magic: a stick come to life. But maybe we’re all sticks come to life. We want to think we’re exceptional, ensouled, angel fairies or God’s special children. The magic of being animate matter isn’t enough.”
They ate a quick breakfast, homicide having no effect on their appetites.