Friday, December 28, 2012

When God Laughs and Other Stories by Jack London

London’s best and worst
This collection of short stories was originally published in 1911, about the middle of Jack London’s career, when he was branching out from his tried and true Klondike subject matter, and experimenting with new settings and new literary techniques. The stories take place in diverse locales, including San Francisco, Tahiti, Korea, Australia, and the open seas. The quality of the stories also varies greatly, and in many ways the selections represent the zenith and the nadir of London’s writing. Three of these stories, “The Apostate”, “The Chinago”, and “A Piece of Steak” are masterpieces of storytelling, among the best of London’s career. On the other hand, “A Wicked Woman” may be the worst story London ever wrote, and at least two others here, “When God Laughs” and “Created He Them,” could easily vie for that ignominious title.

Rather than waste space discussing the losers, let’s focus on the winners. In keeping with London’s preoccupation with socialist thought and labor issues, “The Apostate” focuses on the oppressive life of a young man who has toiled as a factory wage slave for most of his life. “The Chinago” is likewise concerned with social injustice, relating the tale of a Chinese laborer in Tahiti who is tried under French law for a murder he did not commit. It is a scathing indictment of colonialism, and a stark depiction of the indifference to human life that European exploiters often displayed toward their third-world servants. “A Piece of Steak” is an excellent boxing story featuring an aging fighter, poor and underfed, who, in order to feed his family, must fight an epic battle against a youthful opponent. “Just Meat” is another good offering about two thieves who make a big score. “Make Westing” and “The ‘Francis Spaight’” are both gritty seafaring tales, satisfying but not exceptional by London standards. The most pleasantly surprising discovery for me was “A Curious Fragment”, a futuristic socialist tale, set in the 26th century in a world reminiscent of London’s fascinating novel The Iron Heel. It’s an intriguing sci-fi story which, though all too short, offers plenty of social commentary and suspenseful drama.

Despite some of the stinkers in this collection, overall the scales are tipped in favor of the good. Faithful fans of London will definitely find When God Laughs well worth reading. Those who know London only from his sled dog tales will find in this collection prime examples of how he successfully (and in some cases not so successfully) applied his masterful storytelling skills to an incredibly diverse range of subject matter.

Essays and stories in this collection
When God Laughs 
The Apostate 
A Wicked Woman 
Just Meat 
Created He Them 
The Chinago 
Make Westing 
Semper Idem 
A Nose for the King
The “Francis Spaight” 
A Curious Fragment 
A Piece of Steak 

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