Monday, April 1, 2013

John Barleycorn by Jack London

A glimpse into the mind of a troubled genius
Because Jack London led such a fascinating life, any autobiographical information he left behind is priceless. Luckily, we have this excellent book, the closest thing he ever wrote to an actual autobiography. John Barleycorn is an unconventional memoir centered around London’s relationship with alcohol, from his first experience with a bucket of beer at the age of 5 to the serial downing of cocktails in his late thirties. Written on the eve of prohibition, London speaks out about the deleterious effects of alcohol in hopes of saving others from an affliction which ultimately led to his death three years later.

Despite the serious message, this memoir is anything but preachy or depressing. Throughout the first half of the book, the reader finds himself wondering why London chose to write about alcohol at all, since he’s primarily telling a series of adventure tales that just happen to involve drinking. By spinning yarns of his days as an oyster pirate in San Francisco Bay, his time spent tramping across the U.S., and his various sailing trips to far points of the globe, London gradually builds his case that for most human beings the need for alcohol is not a biological but a mental need, continually reinforced by alcohol’s ubiquitous use as a social lubricant.

In the latter half of the book, however, London’s drinking becomes more than just social, and despite his frequent assertions to the contrary, we see him spiraling downward into dependency. Alcohol is not merely a topic of the book but a character, anthropomorphized into the figure of John Barleycorn, a trickster henchman of the grim reaper who cons his victims into succumbing to his sweet embrace. London gives us a taste of the “White Logic”—the thought process of the alcoholic—in which John Barleycorn strips away the illusions of the drinker and reveals to him the pointlessness and insignificance of man’s existence in the face of the inevitability of death.

London writes about alcoholism and mental illness with eloquence and candor. His style somehow manages to combine the detachment of a scientist with the intimacy of a dear friend. John Barleycorn is an invaluable document of London’s life, a vivid and moving study of human psychology, and an urgent call to arms against a formidable foe.

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