The discussion notes at the back the Modern Library edition of Jack London’s The Star Rover sets the following question for debate: ‘The Star Rover was less successful commercially and critically than most of Jack London’s other books. Would you attribute this to the books difficult subject matter or something else? Why?’ And this is the first question that’s asked!
Gives you a good inkling that this is in a lot of ways a difficult book. When London discovered that life prisoner Ed Morrell used to self-hypnotise himself in order to deal with his incarceration and torture (long, long hours spent in a straight jacket) he knew he had to meet him. This novel is based on Ed Morrell’s experiences in prison.
The Star Rover follows what seems a pretty clumsy structure. We are introduced to Darrell Standing, a prisoner sitting on death row, and he tells us how he basically numbs his whole body while he is made to endure the dreaded ‘jacket’. These sessions in the jacket can go on for days. As he numbs his body, he then experiences a series of hallucinations in which he goes to various times and places in history, and assumed different identities.
This is done in a series of episodes, during his time in the jacket. So he goes to Judea at the time of Jesus, then by chapters end we get Darrell Standing coming to and giving us a bit of a commentary on all he’s experienced. With dread, he is back to reality.
The theme of the book seems to be about the body overcoming the rigours that it can be put through on earth, and that in the end we are all deeply spiritual people, with a life force that simply cannot be conquered.
The book kind of works, but leaves you unsatisfied. Jack London is certainly a terrific writer, and he handles these difficult themes convincingly. He doesn’t just add literary flourishes like out of body experiences for fun. You know he really believes in what he’s writing.
The Star Rover didn’t completely win me over though. It comes across as a series of vignettes, not a complete novel. All of the action takes place in the head. I can’t say it’s a really good novel, but by the same token, I can’t pronounce it a real dud. A problem novel worth the try, but only if you’re a real London fan.