Since Jack London's mysterious death in 1916, he has been, like one of the frozen men in his Klondike tales, a writer encased in his own reputation: We know him as the dog writer. Whether it was Buck in "The Call of the Wild," coming to terms with his inner-wolf, or the husky in "To Build a Fire," edging out his master in a Darwinian struggle against the cold, London could lock our emotions onto canines without making it feel like a sentimental exercise.
London was a man of contradictions. Born in San Francisco in 1876, he was raised partly by a former slave, though he later bought into scientific racism. He looted oyster traps in the bay as a teenager until he switched over to working for the California Fish Patrol. He was known as "the Boy Socialist" for his soapbox speeches denouncing Gilded Age materialism. But the same Jack London rushed for gold in the Yukon. He found none but made a fortune mining his experience for stories, becoming one of the first American writers to live solely off his prose. When the money ran short, he tapped into Hollywood.
Paul Malmont's new novel, "Jack London in Paradise," fictionalizes London's late-in-life entanglements with "the pictures." Hobart Bosworth -- based on the real actor and director -- has gone to Hawaii to recruit his old friend to write a screenplay for his down-and-out production company. "We need a hit real bad. 'Birth of a Nation' big," he pleads. They are both past their prime, but together Hobart is convinced they can make a killing.
Malmont is out to have a good time, but he bungles much of the fun. He writes like a traffic cop whistling his period details into place. Mr. Ford's roadsters prowl dutifully down Willoughby Avenue, Ziegfeld starlets are in position outside the Bijou, and Hawaii, lest you associate it with the president-elect, is emphatically recently annexed -- and still somewhat wild.
The bungling continues when -- 100 pages in -- Hobart finally reconnects with Jack. The great writer has just come in from surfing -- "water-sliding," he calls it. "There was still in the sound of his voice and bearing the fire and crack of Nietzsche's Übermensch," Malmont writes. How does our superman spend his days? Mostly hitting on native girls. What kind of pickup lines? "I told her her dress was more beautiful than a Waikiki sunset," he tells Hobart. Jack's capacity for flirtation is only rivaled by his wit: "What's the point of being a celebrated writer if I don't celebrate once in a while?"
After wading through cringe-worthy dialogue like this, the sex scenes in "Jack London in Paradise" come as an unexpected pleasure. Here is Jack with his temptress wife, Charmian: "With a mournful groan, he slid onto the bed next to her . . . she placed her hand tenderly on his belly then slowly slid it down to where everything remained soft." To which Charmian responds, winningly: "Here in Aloha-land you'll grow as strong as you ever were . . . My Mate-Man." Under the covers, Malmont is at his campy best, whether he means it or not (and yes, he is on firm historical footing -- "mate-man" and "mate-woman" were the Londons' actual pet names for each other).
Jack London may be in paradise in this novel, but we are marooned. When Malmont writes in pulp mode, describing, for instance, the test run of a theatrical production of London's novel "Before Adam" with a full cast of native Hawaiians, we are in good hands.
Likewise, suspense genuinely gathers around who is poisoning Jack (no, this is not historically accurate, but it's fun to consider). But when Malmont tries to plumb Jack's philosophical depths during a series of pseudo-psychological sessions with a professor on the island, it all gets distractingly serious.
The real Jack London was, of course, a thoroughly engaged artist.
In "The People of the Abyss," he reported from the underbelly of working-class England before Orwell's "Down and Out in Paris and London." In "The Iron Heel," he imagined a right-wing junta taking over America before Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America." But none of this -- nor Jack's musings about Freud and Jung, nor even many of the scrupulously researched historical details -- should be allowed to weigh down a rollicking tale like "Paradise." Malmont might have been better off cooking his plot from scratch rather than seizing on literary crumbs.
As Philip Henslowe advised young Will in "Shakespeare in Love": All you need is comedy, love and a bit with a dog.
Meaney is a New York-based critic and reviewer.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times