24 MARCH 1967, Page 19

John Barleycorn by Jack London (Arco 25s)

Clear, white light


—He is the king of liars. He is the frankest truthsayer. He is the august companion with whom one walks with the gods. He is also in league with the Noseless One. His way leads to truth naked, and to death. He gives clear vision and muddy dreams. He is the enemy of life, and the teacher of wisdom beyond life's wisdom . . ." My brain was illuminated by the clear, white light of alcohol. John Barley- corn was on a truth-telling rampage giving away the choicest secrets on himself. And I was his spokesman . .

The voice is that of Jack London, almost un- mistakeable, the voice of the great adventurer,

hobo, Cape Horner, socialist, 'prince of oyster pirates,' special correspondent in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904, Klondike gold- rush miner, drinker, womaniser and writer, the great chronicler of the age of innocence of the modern world before the fall. Perhaps today the content of a book such as John Barleycorn would cause some to shrug Jack London aside as just another example of self-willed aliena- tion. The truth, of course, is very different, for whatever the value of Jack London's work as a parable of the life of action, a documentary of the appalling working conditions of his own time, or as a prophecy of the coming authori- tarianism as in The Iron Heel, the true interest of his books lies in the tension between the life of action and the life of acceptance, and nowhere is that conflict laid out with more terrible precision than in John Barleycorn.

In this 'personal autobiographic discussion of the drink question from A to Z,' the warring elements are presented in such a way that only after finishing the book does one realise the true implications of the story. There are the sweeping, lyrical descriptions of sea, sky and the open road, which complement the com- radeship of the saloon; but when London swims out to sea in a drunken compulsive attempt to kill himself, we see for a moment, in spite of all his special pleading, that John Barley- corn is emerging as the true Prince of Darkness of Jack London's life. It may be that in 'the wildest mountain parts of Cali- fornia and Oregon' the stranger can enter 'two or three more saloons . . . and come pretty close to knowing everybody in town, all about the town, and a fair deal about the surrounding country,' but soon, with success, 'on my lovely ranch in the Valley of the Moon, brain-soaked with many months of alcohol, I am oppressed with the cosmic sadness that has always been the heritage of man.'

The claims of self-destruction, of the call of the wild, were too strong; and as the editor of this new edition of Jack London, Mr I. 0. Evans, sensibly points out, it seems that even such characteristic observations in John Bar- leycorn on the sufferings of the writer in the South Seas may have their source in the vitamin deficiency resulting from Barleycorn's occult magic in the blood. One of the greatest ironies of all is that, after the publication of the book in 1913, it became a propaganda showpiece in the Prohibitionist cause. By then, perhaps, it was too late for Jack London to drink 'more skilfully, more discreetly,' as he promises at the end of John Barleycorn, for in November 1916 the battle at last came to an end in the way which perhaps London had always fore- seen . . . 'His way leads to truth naked and to death . .