Earley Ritter — all 6 foot, 5 inches of him — is a man unto himself at the start of Nina Shengold's unlikely wilderness drama "Clearcut"...

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Earley Ritter — all 6 foot, 5 inches of him — is a man unto himself at the start of Nina Shengold’s unlikely wilderness drama “Clearcut” (Anchor, 342 pp., $13).

He has no real mission in life. And he’s at the lowest end of the deforestation food chain on the misty Olympic Peninsula, earning his dinner and whiskey money by cutting up logging companies’ cedar scraps, which he then sells as roofing material, or shakes.

In the working-class logging parlance of Forks, Clallam County, he’s nothing but a “red dirt shake rat” who lives in an old bus and takes showers whenever and wherever he can find running water.

Earley goes through women the way he goes through clear-cuts — by bottom-feeding, coupling with other men’s wives. If the thought of marriage or even so much as an emotional commitment ever crossed his mind, it must have been a fleeting notion.

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Earley is ready for an extreme emotional makeover, and boy does he get one, by way of a surprising love triangle. Surprising for him, that is.

Author appearance

Nina Shengold will read from “Clearcut,” 6:30 p.m. today, Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com).

Shengold’s first novel is a touching if somewhat predictable portrait of a “card-carrying loner” who discovers there’s meaning in life and that he is capable of loving.

In fact, he falls in love with two people at once.

“Clearcut” explores “the peril and thrill, like a skydive” of sexual discovery during the pot-infused 1970s, as Earley grapples with this jumble of impulses.

Enter Reed Alton, a skinny Berkeley student Earley picks up on the side of the road one night, and Reed’s free-spirited, beautiful girlfriend, Zan, who’s fled Berkeley to work as a tree planter on the Peninsula.

Earley envies the tree planters, like Zan, who arrive to replenish the clear-cuts with new growth. At least they’re working for the future.

He also envies Reed, because he has Zan. Zan drives Earley wild. And it’s not just Zan.

At the age of 30, despite all his womanizing, Earley has reached a point where the sight of a nude stranger’s form in the shower, or a jar of Tiger Balm and a pair of sore shoulders, or a good buddy sweetly serenading him on a mandolin by lamplight, might lead him over the edge with another man.

At the root of Earley’s problems is a cowardly instinct that makes him emotionally recoil from people he’s drawn to and who want to care for him. Mystical Zan and affable Reed help Earley clear away the forest of his inhibitions so he can see there’s more to life than he knows. Emotional entanglements present risks, too.

Adding to the steamy sexual atmosphere are Shengold’s poetic Northwest weather depictions. In one passage, Shengold describes a fog lifting “in vertical wisps, like an old-country vision of souls in flight, rising to judgment.”

A major part of the book’s appeal is Shengold’s skill with this kind of word play. What the story lacks in high action, it makes up for with elegant prose that keeps the narrative engaging.

It also helps that Shengold knows the climate, landscape and social dynamics of the logging community firsthand; the Upstate New York-based screenwriter and playwright once did reforestation in the Olympic National Forest.

“Clearcut” suggests that Shengold is using the concise, scene-setting language of stage and film writing to cultivate a promising career as a novelist.

Tyrone Beason: 206-464-2251 or tbeason@seattletimes.com