Though historical fiction receives little attention from critics, such novels draw intense reader loyalty. After all, learning history by reading a novel often seems preferable to reading a textbook.
Paul Malmont has not joined the ranks of such historical novelists as E.L. Doctorow, Gore Vidal and James Michener yet, but he might if he continues writing historical fiction as fascinating as Jack London in Paradise. The fact-based novel is especially welcome because the London biographical canon is unsatisfactory.
Born in 1876, London grew up tough in Northern California. He rarely stayed in school, found adventures around the world, then decided to train himself as a writer of fiction loosely based on his exploits.
Setting his novels in Alaska, Hawaii and other exotic locales then unknown to most Americans, London became well known not only as a writer but as a celebrity — famous for being famous. His daring deeds, rumored affairs with beautiful women and rugged good looks made him a tabloid staple during his short lifetime — he died at 40.
Malmont has reimagined the saga with a focus on the end of the adventurer's life. The "paradise" of the title refers to Hawaii, where London and his unconventional second wife, Charmian, lived as he tried to salvage his health, shake his morphine addiction and relocate his literary muse.
Although all the major characters come across as remarkably three-dimensional, the most memorable "character" is Hawaii, portrayed before statehood. Tourist resorts are beginning to invade as Malmont's novel opens. Corporations building railroads and exporting pineapples and sugar have compromised native government but not yet achieved massive corrupting influence.
Malmont is an advertising copywriter whose first novel, The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril, drew positive reviews but few readers. Choosing London as his protagonist should bring him more.
Steve Weinberg's latest book is "Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller."