Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Dreaming of Eternity in Folsom Prison

A file search coughed up this old review of mine of a very obscure novel by Jack London titled The Star-Rover. The book can also be read on-line.

The Star Rover by Jack London. Introduction by Leslie Fiedler. (Prometheus.) $9.95. 329 pages.

In his excellent 1995 survey Facing Facts: Realism in American Thought and Culture 1850-1920, David E. Shi has this to say about the one of America's foremost "savage realists":

Jack London touted himself as a "man's man," a self-described "rampant individualist" who went "raging through life ... like one of Nietzsche's blond beasts, lustfully roving and conquering by sheer superiority and strength." The illegitimate son of an itinerant astrologer, London led a gypsy existence in and around Oakland, California, developing in the process a "raw and naked, wild and free" outlook: at sixteen he shipped out with oyster pirates and acquired his first mistress, then served as a seaman on a sealing schooner, worked in a cannery, embraced both Marxian socialism and Spencerian materialism, spent a listless semester enrolled at Berkeley, dug for gold in the Yukon, and covered the Russo-Japanese war for the Hearst newspaper syndicate.

Enough material for either a few books or several stories from all over the map. The Star Rover, his newly republished last novel, is the latter. A commercial failure when it came out in 1915, selling fewer than 2,000 copies, it now comes before us, the redoubtable Leslie Fiedler arguing for its reprieve from the dustbin of literature.

In his introduction, Fiedler notes that London had always struggled with the desire to write a novel based on his own youthful stint behind bars. Alas for sales, the final result had neither a happy ending nor a ready-made socialist solution, disappointing both popular audiences and London's Wobbly pals. It was a strange package, too: an expose of the California prison system and a tale of reincarnation and a disquisition on the indestructibility of the spirit and a wheel of stories: Upton Sinclair meets Schopenhauer meets Chaucer. For Fiedler the book is more suited to an audience raised on Stephen King and "The X-Files" (and, I might add, Carlos Castenada and Salman Rushdie) -- a culture which has given up its belief in God but not in things supernatural. (At least that's what I think he said.)

The title character is Darrell Standing, a former agriculture professor, who is writing what amounts to his metaphysical biography and final thoughts while on Death Row at San Quentin’s Folsom Prison. He arrived at prison first for killing a colleague -- we are not sure why, but there are dark hints about a woman -- and is later sentenced to death for striking a guard. During his days in the penitentiary, a would-be friend, angling for early release, falsely accuses him of planting dynamite on the grounds. The prison warden tries to torture Standing into confessing knowledge he doesn't have first by putting him in solitary, and then a straitjacket. London is particularly impassioned about this cruel turn-of-the-century practice, in which the jacket is pulled so tight as to threaten asphyxiation.

When not in the jacket, Standing communicates with the prisoners Morrell and Oppenheimer -- real figures, incidentally; London was partly inspired by newspaper accounts of their experiences -- in separate cells. The men communicate by something called "knuckle talk," where they rap coded letters on the wall. They become so proficient at this that they are capable of long and quite literate conversations; sometimes the length of the dialogue made me think of that old joke about Helen Keller talking her fingers off.

Standing's prison life is only the story's frame. When he's jacketed, he has varying bouts of unconsciousness, during which he recalls his past lives from history or, well, from somewhere. First of all, he remembers being a star rover, a kind of Blakean pre-existent being whose job was to touch every star with a long glass wand. Missing a star means being cast into "an abyss of unthinkable and eternal punishment and guilt," which is presumably how he wound up in his present life in jail.

From there, he recalls being Count Guillaume Sainte-Maure of 18th Century Paris, who dies in a duel. Then there is the eight-year-old Jesse Fancher, whose family trudges along with a wagon train during the great western expansion, starving and ultimately dying at the hands of Brigham Young's Mormons. The shipwrecked Englishman Adam Strang, who marries into a Chinese family, becomes ruler of the land of Cho-Sen before being defeated by the cruel Chong Mong-Ju, who reduces Strang and his wife to beggary for the next forty years. Ragnar Lodbrog, a Danish orphan who is sold as a slave and eventually winds up in New Testament Rome, watching as everyone comes under the spell of the rebel from Palestine. And there is Daniel Foss, the deeply religious sole survivor of a brig which crashes on an iceberg in the early 1800s, who then survives for the next eight years in the Arctic waste on seal meat, mullet and whale. And there are, finally, all kinds of cavemen Standing has been at one time or another.

What all these persona share is endurance. Standing's indomitable spirit confounds the warden, who keeps raising the days of confinement in the jacket, as if trying to literally squeeze out Standing's life as well as his confession. Standing takes strength from the fact that Strang had to wait 40 years to finally take revenge on Chong, that brave young Jesse "became the residing spirit of that apparitioned body known as Darrell Standing's," and that if he could survive eight years as Daniel Foss he could withstand ten days in a straitjacket.

But Standing’s main point is a good deal more cosmic: all men and women are basically one. The idea comes by way of Pascal: “the philosophic mind should look upon humanity as one man, and not as a conglomeration of individuals.” We are also taught, ad infinitum, that ”Life is spirit, and spirit cannot die.”

The Shi account quoted above tells us that London's "devoted reading of Kipling and Nietzsche reinforced his own juvenile theories of Anglo-Saxon domination and prompted his frequent bellowings about the necessity for `blood-courage.'" Bellowing is a lot of what we get from the book.

I haven't read Jack London in forever -- who has? -- but throughout the book I was reminded of his dimly-remembered strengths: stories of men and animals struggling to survive in a hostile environment. When London is on familiar ground, such as the stories of Jesse and Daniel, the book takes on a spunky narrative drive; that sealing schooner experience clearly paid off.

But not all the stories have that same thrust of felt life. London is often out of his element, and the book as a whole doesn't really work. The various pieces of this puzzle don't yield much of a picture. Darrell's philosophical ramblings -- "Truly do we carry in us, each human of us alive on the planet today, the incorruptible history of life from life's beginning" -- are sophomoric, and soon become annoyingly repetitious; knuckle talk from a knucklehead. Darrell wanders from former life to present life to former life and in the end we don't care.

While Fiedler's midwifery is commendable, I suppose, the Second Coming of this book doesn’t hold too much more promise than the first. It doesn’t really bear rediscovering, as it reveals nothing about London’s talent except that it was drying up.

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