Friday, July 26, 2013

Smoke Bellew by Jack London

The lighter, gentler side of London’s Klondike
Smoke Bellew is a collection of short stories by Jack London. Each of the twelve stories is an adventure in the life of the title character, so though each functions as a self-contained tale, they are meant to be read sequentially. For reasons unknown, many of the e-book and online versions of Smoke Bellew only contain six of the twelve stories, so make sure you’re getting a version with all twelve stories before you download.

Christopher “Kit” Bellew, a moderately wealthy man of leisure and reluctant newspaper columnist, is scolded by his uncle for being a useless ninny. He is persuaded through such badgering to accompany this uncle and cousins on a gold hunting expedition to the Klondike. After packing tons of gear over Chilcoot Pass, Kit discovers he likes the rugged outdoor life and decides to stay in the North for good. Through a series of adventures the reader witnesses his transformation from green tenderfoot to grizzled sourdough. Eventually his speed at traversing the frozen trails earns him the nickname of Smoke, which he adopts as a badge of honor.

As a protagonist, Smoke leaves a lot to be desired. In the first couple of stories, when he’s still a big-city dandy, he is incredibly annoying. He speaks in cheesy bohemian slang, even repeatedly referring to his uncle as “avuncular.” Once he starts to discover his inner macho man, he shows an incredible gift for self-congratulation, never missing an opportunity to pause and marvel out loud at what a man he’s become. In the story entitled “The Little Man,” Smoke‘s life is saved by an incredible feat of heroism, yet somehow he ends up taking credit for it in the end. Luckily, as the book goes on, Smoke becomes more and more tolerable, but throughout the collection his sidekick Shorty is a far more sympathetic character than he is.

Smoke Bellew was first published in book form in 1912, after the stories had all been previously published in Cosmopolitan magazine. While these stories have not been dumbed down to the point of being adventure tales for teenage boys, there seems to have been a conscious attempt to deliver straight-ahead crowd pleasing entertainment devoid of any of the darker philosophical themes one often finds in London’s stories. Early in his career, London published a number of remarkable collections of Klondike tales, among them The Son of the Wolf, The God of His Fathers, Children of the Frost, and The Faith of Men. The stories in Smoke Bellew feel like familiar plots recycled from those earlier collections, but stripped clean of any mention of survival of the fittest, the inevitability of death, or the brutal indifference of nature towards the lives of men. Only the final story, “Wonder of Woman,” strives to be anything more than good fun. Here London attempts to do what he does best by chronicling an epic journey of survival, yet it still feels like an inferior rehash of better stories previously told.

The offerings in Smoke Bellew are good, competently constructed adventure tales, but by no means great. If you’ve never read London’s work, and are looking to dip your toe into his icy waters, no harm will come from wading into this volume. Those familiar with London’s writing, however, know that he is capable of much better work than this. For such readers, Smoke Bellew provides pleasant satisfaction, but for the most part fails to impress.

Stories in this collection
The Taste of the Meat 
The Meat 
The Stampede to Squaw Creak 
Shorty Dreams 
The Man on the Other Bank 
The Race for Number Three 
The Little Man 
The Hanging of Cultus George 
The Mistake of Creation
A Flutter in Eggs 
The Town-Site of Tra-Lee 
Wonder of Woman 

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