Friday, March 8, 2013

A Son of the Sun by Jack London

Vivid tropical ambience, but tedious, predictable plots
A Son of the Sun is a collection of short stories by Jack London, all of which originally ran in the Saturday Evening Post in 1911. These eight stories share a common protagonist in David Grief, a South Seas entrepreneur, trader, shipping magnate, plantation owner, and self-made man of means. “Quick eye that he had for the promise of adventure, prepared always for the unexpected to leap out at him from behind the nearest cocoanut tree,” Grief, a true man’s man, spends his leisure time seeking out action, and the islands of the South Pacific offer up plenty.

In “The Jokers of New Gibbon,” Grief and his crew venture to the titular island to check on one of his remote plantations. There, a once fierce native dictator, now fallen from power and addicted to alcohol, reluctantly serves his white masters. But when a practical joke is played at his expense, he retaliates violently. “A Little Account with Swithin Hall” is a mystery tale in which Grief stumbles upon an uncharted island belonging to a wealthy trader of legend. When he enters Swithin Hall’s luxurious mansion and meets the mystery man face to face, Grief senses something fishy is going on, and decides to investigate. “The Pearls of Parlay” takes place on the atoll of Hikihoho, where a crazy old miser is auctioning off his pearl collection. The sale draws several interested parties from all parts of the Pacific, Grief included, but the proceedings are interrupted by an approaching hurricane. Even when seeking out some rest and relaxation, Grief stumbles into excitement, as in “A Goboto Night,” in which he manages to find the time, over a high stakes game of cards, to teach a boorish young jackass a lesson about being a man.

While the plot summaries sound engaging enough, the stories in A Son of the Sun are far from London’s best work. Perhaps the mass appeal of the periodical that published them contributes to their tameness, or maybe it’s the recurrence of the lead character that’s the problem. One of the best qualities of London’s stories has always been his ability to shock and surprise, but there’s little chance of a surprise ending when it’s preordained that Grief will survive for the next episode. As far as short stories go, these are rather lengthy, yet they don’t possess plots worthy of such extensive treatment. Each one feels like a long buildup that yields little payoff. London takes great effort to fill out the word count with handfuls of vivid local color. He’s highly skilled at capturing the torpid atmosphere of the tropics, the macho camaraderie of the white traders and sailors, and the colorful nuances of island slang. Nevertheless, in the service of such weak story lines it all just feels like filler. Included amongst all the local color is a bit of racism, but for the most part it is appropriately accurate to the time and place. The use of the “n word” is just as justified here as it is in Huckleberry Finn. One of the book’s opening paragraphs, however, is absolutely inexcusable in its relentless comparison of black islanders to monkeys. I don’t mean to overemphasize these brief passages, because overall I wasn’t so much offended by A Son of the Sun as I was merely bored by it. If you’re looking for tales of tropical adventure written by a true master of the short story, I would recommend you forego this book and check out London’s Hawaii tales in the fine collections The House of Pride and On the Makaloa Mat.

Stories in this collection
A Son of the Sun 
The Proud Goat of Aloysius Pankburn 
The Devils of Fuatino 
The Jokers of New Gibbon 
A Little Account with Swithin Hall 
A Goboto Night 
The Feathers of the Sun 
The Pearls of Parlay 

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