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Book about Jack London not as good as its subject


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POSTED: Sunday, January 18, 2009

Near the start of Paul Malmont's first book, one of the characters says, "Let me tell you a story. You tell me where real ends and pulp begins."

               

     

 


"Jack London in Paradise"

By Paul Malmont

       

(Simon & Shuster, $25)

       

       

And it's the same thing in his new book, "Jack London in Paradise." There's a whole lot of history here, but it's up to you to decide where the real ends and the made-up begins. If you like that sort of game, you might enjoy this book, which follows an older, mostly down-and-out London during his last visit to Hawaii.

In real life, London was an enormously popular writer who enthralled readers with his spare, brutally honest accounts of life at sea and in the woods in such books as "Call of the Wild," "White Fang" and "Sea Wolf." But like too many other great talents, the booze and celebrity went to his head, and London spent the last quarter of his life writing pulp fiction for magazines, scripts for Hollywood and struggling unsuccessfully to regain his early fame and glory.

And like a lot of other people in similar situations, he thought a trip to Hawaii might be the thing to help get back on track.

"" That's where the book starts, somewhere around 1915. London and his second wife, Charmaine, are living on Oahu, hobnobbing with Duke Kahanamoku, Queen Liliuokalani and other high and low local figures, while Jack is working on a new play, a new novel, a film script, a study of mythology and who knows what else. Some of it he's doing for money, some for love, some to find inner peace. Suffering from kidney failure, he's no longer taken seriously by literary critics because he's no longer truly exerting himself.

So we get an up-close and rather overwrought saga of London not so much in paradise, but in decline. He's depressed, abrasive, cheating (and cheated on), cajoled, manipulated, suicidal, combative, drunk, pampered and maybe even being poisoned. Mostly, he's not a particularly nice man, but sometimes he's thoughtful and a real friend.

Malmont wants you to be sure that he knows Hawaii. The book is full of local places, names, events, traditions, history. He takes you from Waikiki to Haleiwa, from the sea (where London nearly drowns) to the mountains (where London considers throwing himself off the Pali), and he tosses in a host of characters who might or might not have a real-life counterpart. This is part of Malmont's game: If you can spot and trust all the historic references, then maybe you can trust what the rest of the book has to say.

The problem isn't that the book needs more paradise. It needs more London, or some of London's famously spare and honest writing style. Malmont's own style more nearly matches the later London, the one who wrote for the pulps. The prose is clumsy and the dialogue is flat:

"Oahu seems so settled now," one character says. "What happened to the wild jungle lands of my youth?"

"On the other side of the mountains, my friend. There you'll find your pockets of uncivilization," London answers.

It's hard to imagine a man who could craft a classic like "Call of the Wild" using a phrase like "pockets of uncivilization."

When I first saw the title of this book, I envisioned settling down for a cool evening with an anthology of London's finest Pacific writings. And, on reflection, that's what I should have done.