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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.

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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