Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Night-Born by Jack London

A mixed bag of the good, the bad, and the ugly
The Night-Born contains ten short stories by Jack London, first published together as a collection in 1913. These writings take place in diverse settings and belong to various genres. The quality of the selections ranges considerably as well. The title comes from a quote by Thoreau which figures prominently in the book’s first story, also entitled “The Night-Born,” in which a woman relates her epic odyssey in the wilds of the North, fueled by the innate and irresistible wanderlust within her. This particular tale is not an exceptional example of London’s work, but it satisfies.

“The Benefit of the Doubt,” “Winged Blackmail,” “Bunches of Knuckles,” and “To Kill a Man” are all crime stories, a genre at which London did not excel, therefore they’re far from his best work. In many cases there’s a lightheartedness to the violence—slapstick fist fights and so forth—that undermines any attempt at suspense or gravity. “The Benefit of the Doubt” is a courtroom story that satirizes the judicial system, but it’s too absurd to be either relevant or funny. Two stories, “To Kill a Man” and “Under the Deck Awnings,” feature femme fatales in prominent roles, but unlike many thrillers in which such ladies appear as empowered women, these female characters just come across as evil harpies. The whole purpose of the stories in which they star seems merely to express an open hatred toward women. Thankfully, that’s a stance uncharacteristic of London, who usually shows a lot of respect for his women protagonists.

Now for the bright side. The best story in the book, simply entitled “War,” is also the shortest. A cavalry scout in an unnamed war rides through the countryside, ever vigilant, for death my strike anywhere, at anytime. Written with a stoic detachment that denies any honor or glory to battle, it pithily encapsulates the tension, the danger, and the universal senselessness of war. The longest story in the book, “The Mexican,” is another masterpiece. A mysterious youth joins a band of Mexican revolutionaries in Los Angeles, displaying an ardor for the cause so intense he frightens even his fellow believers. In order to aid his comrades south of the border with guns and ammunition, he must come up with five thousand dollars, and he’s willing to fight for it. Another well-crafted story is “The Madness of John Harned,” in which an American watches a bullfight in Quito, Ecuador with some local acquaintances. As the spectacle progresses, Harned, as London’s surrogate, condemns the bullfight as cowardly, and contrasts it with the honorable, manly sport of boxing. Lastly, “When the World Was Young” is a fun sci-fi piece in which London indulges his obsession with human evolution and primitive man. Little more can be said about that one without spoiling its surprises.

So to recap, the good/bad factor overall is half and half. Unless you’re a London fanatic, you’d probably be best served by reading the five good stories and leaving the others alone.

Stories in this collection:
The Night-Born
The Madness of John Harned
When the World Was Young
The Benefit of the Doubt
Winged Blackmail
Bunches of Knuckles
Under the Deck Awnings
To Kill a Man
The Mexican

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