Saturday, April 23, 2016

Book Review: Selected Stories of Jack London

Very early on in reading through the short stories in this collection, two very strong, heartfelt conclusions came over me, numbing my limbs and ultimately my heart as only the northernmost frost can do:

1) Jack London is an extraordinarily brilliant short story writer.

2) Jack London is an extraordinarily depressing short story writer.

I was looking for a break from the SF I was reading of late – Pohl’s Space Merchants; the novel the movie Limitless was based on; Wolfshead; The Hero of Downways. I wanted something ACTION-oriented. Tough guys battling the elements, and not each other, for a change. Or maybe each other, in the case of righting a personal injustice, Leo-DiCaprio-The-Revenant-style. John Wayne killin’ a bear, then killin’ the injun that set it upon him.

Hence, the Jack London stories, found during a recent visit to a used book store.

The paperback anthology I read contained twenty-five of London’s short stories (ranging in length from a modest 6 to a hefty 24 pages), divided into two sections: 12 “Selected Klondike Stories,” 13 “Selected Short Stories.” I found the Klondike tales riveting, exciting, mysterious, in the sense that the Yukon is a place completely alien to me. The closest experience I get to traversing the Arctic Circle is shoveling a foot of snow off my driveway a few times a year. I knew it’s a dangerous, deadly adversary, these upper regions of the Earth, capable of killing a man in minutes if the man doesn’t pay proper obeisance to the gods of snow.

Heck, I read “To Build a Fire,” way back in school, Middle School, I believe it was. You probably did too.

My verdict? Well, #1 and #2 above came to me pretty quickly, and biased every story after the first I read. I fairly enjoyed the Klondike stories. But by the time I got to the second half of the anthology, I noted the tales grew grimmer, darker, more cynical. Man can never overcome nature (most of the stories in both sections). Civilized man is evil (ditto). Don’t try to right an injustice, you just can’t (“The Chinago”). The economics of big business is evil (“The Apostate”, “South of the Slot”). Religion and religious belief is essentially hypocritical (just about all of ’em).

It became a grind to read the work. Grimwork.

With the modest assumption that life is too short to spend willingly depressing oneself, I set the book aside, the final nine tales unread. I’ve had my sampling of Jack London. Like I said, he is a wonderful writer, if you can stomach the drear inherent in his work. 

As far as originality, “Bȃtard” is about as best as they come, a story of a downright evil adventurer, a man of foul disposition, who trains a trail dog to become even more eviler and fouler than himself. The two develop a kind of perverse symbiotic relationship, and each play a willful part in the other’s death – in an extremely imaginative and unconventional way. I’m not going to spoil it for you. Check it out for that first paragraph alone; pure, unadulterated genius in 175 words.

And, for those book nerds out there that may come across this entry, here are the humble grades I, an unpublished writer of short stories himself who isn’t even in the same league as London (for at heart he’s an expositionist, whereas I fancy myself a dialoguarian), assign those tales I did read:

“In a Far Country” … A–

“To the Man on Trail” … B+

“The White Silence” … A

“Wisdom of the Trail” … B+

“An Odyssey of the North” … B+

“The Law of Life” … B+ … depressing

“The God of His Fathers” … B … brutal!

“Bȃtard” … A+

“The League of Old Men” … B+

“Love of Life” … B+

“The Wit of Porportuk” … A

“To Build a Fire” … A+

“All Gold Canyon” … B

“The Apostate” … C … dreadfully depressing

“South of the Slot” … B

“The Chinago” … B … depressing

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