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Books

Strange Muse: Jack London and Ernest Gallo

Image partial. Photographer unknown.

One bad novel, gallons of cheap red wine, and spring-fed creeks of sweat.

“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is madness that almost rivals Mac Meyer’s lunacy, which I first chronicled in a chapter called Blood and Wine from my unpublished autobiographical novel, The Furthest Palm.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.

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