Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Hearts of Three by Jack London

London’s Worst
I have been an enthusiastic reader of Jack London’s work for 25 years, and have read about three-quarters of his writings. With the advent of the Kindle, and the easy availability of even his most obscure books, I have set myself the task of finishing his complete works. Never have I regretted that decision so much as when I undertook the grueling ordeal of reading Hearts of Three.

In his introduction to the work, London explains that this book was originally written as the scenario for a film serial by Charles Goddard, and London was hired to write a novelization of Goddard’s story outline. It’s hard to believe that an outline was ever written, for it reads as if London just made the book up as he went along. Though this may be a collaborative work, the reader need not fear that the book may not have enough London in it. This novel certainly bears the inimitable stamp of its famous author, particularly in its ever-present preoccupation with race.

Francis Morgan, a rich New York playboy, bored with the stock market, decides to venture down to Panama to search for the long lost treasure of his dead grandfather. Once he arrives, he meets a long lost cousin, Henry Morgan, a laid back beach comber. The two are the spitting image of one another, distinguishable only by the presence or absence of moustache, a plot device that provides all the entertainment value of a bad Jackie Chan or Jean Claude Van Damme movie. Both men fall in love with the same woman, Leoncia Solano, and the three set off together to find the treasure. By the way, Henry is wanted for murder, and an inordinate amount of time is spent freeing him from the authorities. Not until chapter 13 does the book finally become the sort of Indiana Jones-style adventure story that it purports to be. Eventually the treasure hunt runs its course, and in its final chapters the book devolves into a dull drama about stock trading.

If you were to summarize the action of each of the 29 chapters in two or three sentences, Hearts of Three might sound like an exciting book. Unfortunately, the narrative is horribly clogged up with pointless digressions, inane conversations, and London’s questionable views on race. Each new character is introduced with a racial pedigree, then subsequently defined by the stereotype that accompanies that pedigree. More than one character laments that his bad fortune is the result of being punished by God for engaging in an interracial relationship. Of course, London makes it clear early on that Leoncia Solano is not really Spanish but adopted, thereby rendering it acceptable for the two Anglo-Saxon heroes to woo her. Despite his fascination with race, his knowledge of Panamanian ethnography is a little sketchy. London uses the word “Maya” as a blanket term to encompass all Mesoamerican native peoples. One of the Mayan characters reads a quipu, or knotted string of cords, which was not a Mayan invention at all but rather an information transmittal device employed by the Inca.

London throws a lot of lowbrow slapstick humor into this book in an attempt to make it a crowd pleaser, yet he also wants to make it clear that he’s an intellectual, so he has all the characters speak in flowery, poetic language, with literary references and Yoda-esque syntax. Hearts of Three is easily the worst London book I’ve ever read (though there are still a few out there I haven’t touched yet). The only pleasure one derives from reading this novel is similar to that of witnessing a train wreck, or watching a horrible old movie that’s “so bad it’s good.” Thankfully, this is one film concept that never made it to the silver screen.

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