Strange Muse: Jack London and Ernest Gallo

“Rodger! It’s Mac again. I don’t know why you won’t return my calls,” the voice mail message began. “I mean, Jesus Christ, we grew up together. Look, here’s the deal: I’m starting a new art project. Don’t try to stop me. Ha! And, yeah, well, I need something from you. Okay? So just call me back. Alright? Fine. Bye.”

Mac’s tone, as usual, is manic and tinged with a hint of malice. I try to avoid manic people at all costs and I have been avoiding Mac Meyer since my mother’s passing 15 months ago just as I am now attempting to avoid crafting a column around Paul Malmont’s new potboiler novel, Jack London in Paradise.

Malmont’s awful novel shares several common traits with my former friend Mac: both are stumbling, rambling, disheveled, rat-infested, artistic and personal fuck-ups. How could I label Malmont’s novel as a “personal “fuck up? You try writing this as the opening line to your sophomore novel and tell me you wouldn’t be embarrassed as all hell:

“Los Angeles was freezing but Hobart Bosworth was drenched in his own sweat.”

As a colleague who also suffered through Jack London in Paradise put it succinctly: “If Hobart Bosworth was drenched in someone else’s sweat and didn’t know how it got there or whose sweat it was, that might have been an interesting opening.”

But Hobart Bosworth’s sweat glands are just the beginning. Malmont stunningly compounds the damage in the second and third sentences of chapter one:

“His undershirt was plastered to his body and droplets ran like spring-fed creeks down his back. He had run down Spring to catch the little Central trolley…”

So the droplets of sweat are running like “spring-fed creeks” while movie producer Hobart Bosworth is running down Spring Street. This is madness that almost rivals Mac Meyer’s lunacy, which I first chronicled in a chapter called Blood and Wine from my unpublished autobiographical novel, The Furthest Palm.

“I cried the day Ernest Gallo died,” Mac confessed to Trace. “I sat right down on the edge of my bed with a bottle of Gallo wine and I cried like a baby.”

Mac’s love for Gallo wine bordered on the romantic. Trace couldn’t believe that his old friend consumed so much cheap wine and still managed to stay above ground.

“A jug a day and Taco Bell, that’s all I spend my money on, Trace.”

The sparse furnishings in Mac’s San Francisco apartment bore the truth of that statement. The living room played host to a threadbare brown sofa bed that smelled like a bus station men’s room. That was it. No other furniture. The television was in Mac’s bedroom, which was always kept under lock and key to keep the rats inside.

“Why do you have rats?”

Mac stood over the old four-burner gas stove in the kitchen and rubbed the stubble on his chin thoughtfully. He poured a tumbler full of Gallo Burgundy and thought about it a little more.

“I don’t remember.” And then he laughed, a high-pitched, throw-your-head-back cackle that exposed a row of uneven yellow teeth.

October was a tough month to slog through even without Mac Meyer calling and leaving a message once a week.

Book: Jack London in Paradise

Author: Paul Malmont

Publisher: Simon and Schuster

Publication Date: 2009-10

Length: 400 pgs.

Format: Paperback

Price: $15.00

ISBN-10: 1416547231

ISBN-13: 978-1416547235

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/columns_art/j/jacobs-jlondonparadise-cove.jpgMy latest Deconstruction Zone column on Mexico in literature had sapped the life and creativity out of me. (see: The Name of This Land is Hell: Mexico in Literature ) I was also compelled to wage a Quixotic war with my bank over an unannounced change in credit terms; my personal physician solicited a $40 bribe from me for a jury service exemption (which my health conditions clearly exclude me from) and then threatened to prosecute me through the Nevada state attorney general’s office when the check was returned NSF due to a bank error; I had to boldly threaten to walk from my sole paying client when his payroll service refused to fix a hole in their system that was causing interminable delays between paychecks, and Jack London in Paradise was begging for my attention like one of Mac Meyer’s hungry rats.

“Did you buy the rats at a pet store, Mac?”

Trace opened the pint bottle of Wild Turkey that he bought at the Safeway in the Marina District. He would drink straight from the neck of the bottle. He didn’t trust any dishware in Mac’s apartment. Trace was in San Francisco – the city of his birth – for two days on assignment for Hustler magazine. He was writing a feature on German Nazi-era pornography. The leading expert on the subject lived in San Francisco and preferred an in-person sit down over a telephone interview. The magazine agreed to pay for Trace’s travel but not accommodations.

“Leave early in the morning,” his editor ordered, “and then turn around and drive back the same evening after you’ve done the interview.”

Trace couldn’t make such an arduous voyage in one day so he called his childhood friend.

“Sure, you can stay here,” Mac said on the phone. “But I’m warning you in advance that my place is – well, it’s usually a mess.”

He had forgotten to warn Trace about the rats.

“They came with the apartment but I caught them in a cage and domesticated them. They’re great pets, Trace.”

About six months ago my brother, Jack, called from Stockton, California, asking if I had spoken to Mac Meyer. “He said he’s been trying to call you for weeks.”

“I’ve been getting his messages, Jack, but I really have no desire to talk to Mac. I haven’t for years, although I did speak to him briefly when mom died last August.”

“I know you don’t want to talk to him, Rodg, but he just has some stuff to get off his chest. He talked to me about it on the phone for a half hour the other night.”

“What kind of ‘stuff’?” I cautiously ventured.

“Well,” Jack sighed, “apparently he had sort of a crush on mom when we were kids, he said, and I guess he continued to have, you know, a thing for her all of his life. You just need to hear him out, Rodger.”

“The hell I do,” I said before changing the subject abruptly. “I don’t need to hear his sexual fantasies about my dead mother, thank you and fuck you very much.”

“How do you domesticate a rat, Mac?”

Mac poured another slug of Gallo.

“Well, I never let them out of the bedroom, so in that regard they’re domesticated.” He laughed again. Trace wanted to grab him by the lapels of that dirty, piss stained cotton robe from Mervyn’s and slam him against the wall.

“What the fuck have you done with your life?” Trace would have screamed at him. “You’re a bum. You used to have talent.”

When Trace and Mac Meyer were growing up together in San Francisco they supported each other in their goals and ambitions. Trace wanted to be a reporter or a writer of some sort and Mac desired to illustrate album covers. Trace had never seen an artist with Mac’s innate abilities. He could study any artist’s work for a day or two and then sit down at an easel and exactly replicate the artist’s style. If nothing else, Mac Meyer could have become the world’s greatest producer of art forgeries.

In the afterword to the Penguin edition of The Portable Jack London, editor Earle Labor writes:

The remark that ‘more bad literature has been written about London… than he wrote himself’ is probably more pertinent today than when Harry Hartwick made it in 1934. No other American writer – not even Poe – has inspired so much misinformed biography and wrongheaded criticism. The canards about London’s alleged pessimism, drug addiction, and suicide – as blatant examples – have persisted in the face of abundant evidence to the contrary, as have the half-truths about his alcoholism, racism, and sexism.

In July 1999 I was pleased to join the ranks of the myth-busting Mr. Labor and the esteemed London scholar and biographer Dr. Clarice Stasz (Jack London’s Women) when I penned an essay for Panik magazine refuting the long-held theory that London was the pseudonymous Ragnar Redbeard, author of the 1896 radical tract on biological determinism, Might is Right (a theory that Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey endorsed, demonstrating his absolute stupidity, when he wrote that London “was the most likely candidate”).

One year after publication, my original essay, “Running with the Wolves: Jack London, Might is Right, and the Cult of Masculinity”, was picked up for inclusion in the Jack London Online Collection of scholarly papers devoted to the author at Sonoma State University in Northern California. None other than Dr. Stasz herself contacted me to request reprint rights; to this day that remains one of the proudest accomplishments in my so-called career.

The Sweating Man

Jack London

The Sweating Man

What crawls from the waterfronts of Jack London’s wild and colorful youth…

But something happened along the road to wishes and dreams fulfilled. For Trace, it took over a decade of toil before he would be allowed to call himself a professional, working writer. Along the way, he held down stints as a bar manager in San Francisco and San Diego, a security supervisor and stage manager at a Hollywood studio, and a development executive for a small production company with more ambition than cash in the bank.

What happened to Mac Meyer, though, was a troubling mystery to Trace. He was a guitar craftsman for a spell and then fronted a punk rock band that played at low-rent venues throughout the Bay Area. He drank, too. A lot. And the drinking increased after Mac lost his parents within a year of each other. It would be too simple, Trace knew, to infer that the death of his parents spurred Mac Meyer into a Leaving Las Vegas-styled drinking binge. According to the accounts of mutual friends, Mac was a functioning drunk before he hit 30. He was now 39-years-old.

A close reading of Jack London’s autobiographical work John Barleycorn (1913) reveals that the author and adventurer was what we would today label as a binge drinker, not a hardcore alcoholic like Mac had become.

Book: The Portable Jack London

Author: Jack London (Earle Labor, Ed.)

Publisher: Penguin

Publication Date: 1994-07

Length: 608 pgs.

Format: Paperback

Price: $18.00

ISBN-10: 0140179690

ISBN-13: 978-0140179699

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/columns_art/j/jacobs-portablejlondon-cvr.jpgWhen the events depicted in the Blood and Wine chapter of Furthest Palm occurred Mac was one year away from London’s age, 40, when London died of kidney failure in November 1916. Jumping ahead to the year 2009, I am stunned that Mac has survived to his 50th year, as I have, and as I struggle to cobble together this column he is calling me from his home in Modesto, California, far from the waterfronts of San Francisco and Oakland where we grew up, the same waterfronts of Jack London’s wild and colorful youth.

By way of explaining Mac’s presence in Modesto my brother tells me that our childhood pal has fallen on hard times. Yeah? Who the hell hasn’t and when did Mac Meyer ever have “good times” that didn’t involve a jug of Gallo wine?

Trace returned to L.A. the next day with 90 minutes of prime interview material for his Hustler feature and a soul that was deeply disturbed by what had become of his friend. Mac had been working the last three years at a tie-dye T-shirt company in the Haight District.

“This is what you’ve done with your talent?” Trace confronted his friend. “You make T-shirts?”

Mac had shrugged his shoulders and laughed. “I have full medical and dental,” he said.

Trace slept that night on a sofa bed redolent in the odor of urine, listening in terror to the sound of rats trying to chew their way through the wall.

“I have no idea what the hell I’m going to write about this goddamn novel about Jack London.”

I am complaining to my girlfriend, Miss L, as we make the monthly two-mile hike by foot (we are sans transportation at the moment) to the Rapid Cash store this weekend, the weekend before my deadline delivery date for PopMatters, so we can both extend our payday advance loans. London, I believe, would have found the predatory nature of modern-day payday lenders both fascinating and repulsive.

Miss L asks me exactly what the novel is about.

“It’s a potboiler,” I explain, “an absolute overwrought melodrama of the worst kind. It’s set in 1916, the last year of London’s life, and Hobart Bosworth –”

“ – the Sweating Man?”

“One and the same. Bosworth owns a production company in L.A. that has produced several hit movies from London novels like The Sea Wolf and John Barleycorn.”

“This is true?” Miss L asks as we traverse an empty lot on Flamingo Road that until recently hosted Art’s Halloween Pumpkin Patch, soon to be converted to Art’s Christmas Tree Lot and Holiday Wonderland.

“Yes, Bosworth was a real person and he did do business with Jack, but the novel is pure speculation. Bosworth is in need of a hit to save himself and his company from ruin so he travels to Hawaii, where Jack and his wife, Charmian, are living, to convince Jack to write an original screenplay for him because the only money his backers will advance him is for another Jack London success.”

We emerge from the vacant lot and back onto the sidewalk on Flamingo in front of The Road Runner, a cowboy-themed bar, restaurant, and casino housed in what is supposed to resemble a gigantic red-roofed country barn.

“As a stock plot, it’s okay,” I continue, “but then the author gets into layers of ridiculous complexity with Jack’s interest in the evolving practice of Jungian psychology, his relationship with Charmian, and the history, mythology, and culture of the Hawaiian islands, including the history of surfing, and the entire effort just veers hopelessly out of control, complete with atrocious, stilted dialogue that reads like it was cribbed from a 1916 dime novel, which might have been the writer’s intent but somewhere along the way you would’ve thought that someone would tell him that the average 1916 adventure novel was chock full of just plain bad writing.”

The ringing of my cell phone disrupts the conversation. Caller ID tells me that it’s Mac Meyer calling. Again. “Are you going to answer?” Miss L asks.

“Fuck no.”

The first phone call came one month after Trace had visited Mac. When Trace answered the phone, Mac was in the middle of a full-force laughing fit.

“What’s so goddamn funny, Mac?”

“I – I — ” Mac’s breath came in shallow gasps between guffaws.

“Come on, Mac, it’s late.”

“I got arrested for a DUI!” Mac announced. “I was three times over the limit. I have to go to traffic school and they yanked my license for six months. Guess it’s high time to buy a bike.”

Trace’s disappointment sunk in deeper but nothing prepared him for the next call.

“I had to have my annual physical for our health insurance carrier,” Mac explained to Trace in a somber tone. “I was sweating bullets, man. I mean, you know, years of fucking drinking I figured there had to be something wrong. Guess what I did? I just blurted out to the doctor ‘I’m an alcoholic and I may have done damage to myself!’”

Mac laughed. “And so the doctor orders a series of tests, including a full liver panel and guess what?”

“You have cirrhosis.”

“No!” Mac howled. “I’m perfectly fine, Trace. He said my liver was clean. He said there are some people whose bodies can tolerate any amount of alcohol abuse you can think of and that I might just be one of those people. Isn’t that great?”

“Mac, listen to me. You have not been given a free license to drink all you want. You’ve actually been issued a warning.”

Mac laughed, long and hard. Trace tried to get another word or two in edgewise but Mac’s screeching on the telephone was like line static from a madhouse.

Trace hung up and never spoke to Mac Meyer again, though he did make a habit of scanning the obituary page of the ‘San Francisco Chronicle’ every few months.

Or so I thought I was done with Mac Meyer until the passing of my mother last year invited him back into my life, an invitation I have obviously been sidestepping.

When Miss L and I returned home from paying our debt to Rapid Cash and some meager grocery shopping that evening, I listened to Mac’s message on the cell phone voice mail:

Okay, your recording says to leave a detailed message so here it is. It’s Mac. It’s Saturday around five o’clock. You know my number so there’s no need to leave that again.

Look, I’m trying to find photos of your mom; as you know she was my second mother and her death kind of hit me. I was gonna go see her when she was sick and then things got in the way and I’m still kind of really upset about it so if you have any photos of her just let me know. Okay? Call me. We’ll talk.

Moments after listening to that message from Mac I found myself pawing through a dog-eared paperback copy of The Portable Jack London, searching, I suppose, for inspiration for this edition of The Deconstruction Zone.

What I randomly stumbled across was a closing passage that Jack wrote in a June 1900 letter to Cloudesley Johns, London’s favorite correspondent during his formative years and lifelong friend; it seems as fitting an epitaph to this month’s column as anything original that I could create:

“Now please don’t fall upon what I have written in spirit other than with which it was written. I’ve hammered it out hastily, and not done it justice, I know, but it has all been sincere.”

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