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Allen Boyer Book Review – ‘Panther Gap,’ by James A. McLaughlin

“Bearskin,” the debut thriller of James McLaughlin, won its author an Edgar Award for Best First
Novel. It pitted the caretaker of a Blue Ridge wilderness preserve against poachers and drug
cartel gunmen.

“Panther Gap,” McLaughlin’s second book, is likewise set in the natural world, the Colorado mountains and Arizona desert. It is equally fast-paced and intelligent – and more challenging, a thriller haunted by ideas.

One strand of the plot is a brilliant slam-bang entertainment. It features a heavy backpack of cocaine, a tainted inheritance, a race against the clock in pickups and aircraft, double-crosses within double-crosses, and an explosive shoot-out in a mountain pass – a firefight worthy of Tom Clancy, and which McLaughlin narrates as coolly as Hemingway.

The other strand of the book unfolds across three decades, from the 1980’s, tracking a brother and sister, Bowman and Summer. They were reared on the family ranch in southwestern Colorado: in Panther Gap, a niche of a canyon opening into a green valley, by their widower father Leo – a retired diplomat, perhaps a retired spy, too often a reclusive visionary.

Summer, once a student of ecology and anthropology, is now all but married to ranch life.
Bowman inherited the family’s prophetic streak. Bumming along the Caribbean coast, living off
reef fish that he spears himself, he has laced his body with ciguatera, an algae toxin that causes

The most powerful is of a jaguar:

“He looked Bowman in the eye and brushed past. The fur on his side was warm and rain-wet,
the black-spotted orange rosettes undulating with his stride. He walked down the corridor
toward the front entrance hall, leaving bloody paw prints on the stone flagging. He stopped
and looked back. Not a threat, and not imploring either … He padded away, disappearing
down the corridor. The tracks remained, dark red flowers painted on stone.”

With her Glock and her pilot’s license, Summer owns the action in this book. She’s the one who
crash-lands a Cessna and puzzles out the Swiss bank accounts.

(Beneath the high-tech details, McLaughlin is silently spoofing every old-school melodrama in which a plucky heroine fights to save the ranch.) To Bowman belongs a dubious gift of prophecy. He has smeared his body with red mud and scrambled on all fours alongside desert wolves; he has shared a tree with that otherworldly jaguar. His insights come with a cost. Weakened by his hermit’s life, he cannot fully fathom his visions, not any more than Summer can trust the police.

James McLaughlin

Within this thriller, there is a novel of ideas – never slowing the action, never quite absent.
Consider the characters’ names: Bowman and Summer, and Uncle Darwin, and Uncle Jeremy,
namesake of a grim prophet, a lawman who reports to Sheriff Sartoris. Leo hunted with eagles
called Alecto, Horkos, and Hesperus, names from the dark side of Greek mythology.

McLaughlin takes the book’s epigraph from Cormac McCarthy: When even the bones is gone in
the desert the dreams is talk to you, you don’t wake up forever.

Bowman’s visions are never empty ecocentric raptures. They may be symptoms of his
ciguatera poisoning; they may mask conditions that a child psychologist could have treated.
The world that he glimpses is one that Jack London would have understood, or the poet who
wrote Nature red in tooth and claw. He can see the animal within the faithful, familiar family

“Bowman’s hands cupped his heavy skull, rubbing the powerful muscles attached to a
prominent bony knob on the back of his head, like the point of a battering ram. A flash in
Bowman’s mind, an image, a ferocious bite and shaking without mercy, a powerful capacity for
violent action, held in abeyance by a thousand years of breeding and a lifelong love for a
particular family of homo sapiens.”

The landscape of “Panther Gap” is weirder and more powerful than its characters’ weaponry. A
Mohave rattlesnake disrupts a tense border rendezvous. The novel is framed by beacon fires lit
at sites prepared by the vanished people of the desert pueblos – to track the stars, to warn of
change and enemies.

More deftly than Faulkner or McCarthy, McLaughlin keeps his fiction under control. Whatever
might be mythic or clichéd, he cuts down to size. Bowman knows that he counts “as a
sophisticated – that is, self-aware – paranoiac.”

When Summer confronts him, it is with sisterly irritation: “Did you ever see the wolves? I bet they ran away from you all painted up with red mud like a crazy person. Like I did.”

The trophy room at the ranch house, when its double doors open, is “like walking into the mammal hall at the Smithsonian, or maybe a Cabela’s store.”

Among the trophies hangs a huge pitch-black bearskin (one of the two links between
McLaughlin’s novels).

Credibly, this book fears that mankind may not be doing enough to hold back the desert. The
most chilling warning of what the world may see comes from an Aztec creation myth, in which
humanity emerged from an underworld after the destruction of the world above ground: “a
physical disaster,” Bowman speculates, “or a cultural one, a shift from a better way of life
people had lived before, maybe a real-life utopia.” Nor is this vision unmoored. In the logging
country of Mexico, Bowman has seen what men will do to each other when their environment
shifts around them.

Imagine the next “Mission: Impossible” movie filmed by a director known for magic realism, or
a cleverly plotted John Grisham novel doctored by Jesmyn Ward at her most phantasmagorical.
That is what “Panther Gap” offers – a fierce, vivid, memorable tale.

Panther Gap,” by James McLaughlin. Flatiron Books. 356 pages. $28.99

Allen Boyer, book editor of HottyToddy, grew up in Oxford.

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