Friday, April 12, 2013

Burning Daylight by Jack London

You can take the man out of the Yukon, but you can’t take the Yukon out of the man.
Although he has just marked his 30th birthday, Burning Daylight is considered an old-timer among the populace of Circle City, Alaska. Long before the dawning of the Klondike Gold Rush he was hitting the snowbound trails in search of the precious yellow dust. Blessed with seemingly limitless stamina, intelligence and strength, the former Elam Harnish earned his colorful nickname from his oft-repeated, good-natured scolding to softer and lazier men reluctant to wake up and hit the trail. A born gambler, Daylight thrives in the environment of the northern wilds, where fickle fortune can make or break a man in the blink of an eye. His gambler’s mentality, however, drives him to seek ever bigger stakes, prompting him to return to civilized society, settle in San Francisco, and try his hand in the world of big business.

This novel by Jack London was originally published in 1910. The first third of the book takes place in the North, and with the exception of The Call of the Wild it may be his best Klondike novel. At times it resembles a collection of scenes lifted from his early short stories, but London does a fine job of integrating these scenes into a compelling, well-crafted adventure story. Unfortunately, Burning Daylight is one of those books that gets worse as it goes along. It doesn’t descend so far as to be a bad book, but Part II never quite lives up to the promise of Part I. When London writes about Daylight’s financial adventures, such as hostile takeovers or stock market maneuverings, he uses so many poker and boxing metaphors it’s often difficult to tell exactly what is being transacted. At times the book shows inklings of becoming a superman-versus-the-corrupt-establishment narrative, but about halfway through, Daylight finds a love interest. Though love was never London’s strong suit, the relationship between Daylight and Dede is more realistic and less annoying than most of his romances, but the dialogue between the two does become tediously repetitive. Though it would have made a great subplot to the business adventure story, instead their romance dominates the latter half of the book. This unfortunate turn is easily forgiven, however, because Daylight is such a likeable and engaging character that the reader will willingly follow him anywhere.

For those familiar with London’s writing, it’s obvious that the hero of Burning Daylight shares many personal characteristics with his creator. Daylight is an incredibly idealized version of the already larger-than-life London. He is the man London wants to be, and he lives the life London wants to live. Even Daylight’s business dealings reflect the moves London would make at a Wall Street fantasy camp. Writing this book was probably a labor of love for the author, and maybe that’s why the story feels a little too happy, too pleasant, too idyllic to be satisfyingly realistic. You won’t find here the pessimistic fatalism so blatant in grittier works like The Call of the Wild or Martin Eden. What Burning Daylight could use is more conflict. Nevertheless, if you find yourself in the mood for a lighter and more optimistic story, this novel might be just what you’re looking for. It may be lacking in gravity, but Daylight’s personal quest does impart some meaningful life lessons. Burning Daylight is not one of London’s masterpieces, but it still amply displays the talents of this master storyteller, and will prove an enjoyable and satisfying read for long-time fans of London or newcomers to his work.

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