Wednesday, March 16, 2011
"I'm not an actor! I'm a movie star!" -- Jack and the Jungle Lion, a Novel by Stephen Jared
When I finished reading Stephen Jared’s new novel, Jack and the Jungle Lion, I thought immediately of that terrific line from My Favorite Year, a film about a swashbuckling star who knows what he is and proudly proclaims it. Jared’s fictional 1930’s-era action movie hero, Jack Hunter, is just such an archetypal movie star. In the grand tradition of Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn, Jack is a handsome, dashing champion of damsels in distress and fearless adventurer on screen. In his private life, Jack is everything you might expect in such a star, and less. He is handsome, charming, a little bumbling and rather spoiled in luxury, with a very healthy ego, and no more fearless than the average moviegoer. Jack discovers a lot about himself as the story develops, and Jared creates a delightfully endearing character that you just can’t help but like.
Jared describes Jack and the Jungle Lion as “A Romance of Adventure,” and that is exactly what it is. Set in the dazzling years of 1930’s movies, the book takes the reader on a sharply-paced, first-rate ride from Jack’s sumptuous Hollywood home to an unexpected and dangerous trek through the jungles of South America and back again. Jack the spoiled movie star returns from his all too real adventure a better man, just as charming and irresistible as ever, but with a genuine strength and realistic insight into his own character. He also stumbles upon love for a most unusual woman in a most unusual situation.
Jack Hunter’s story is narrated by a man who remembers Jack as his father’s friend. Jack had thrilled the young boy with many of his tales of adventure, and the captivated youngster never forgot them. The boy, now grown, introduces himself in the book’s prologue, then steps out of the way to let the story unwind on its own. We first meet Jack in his home, where he lives in a convenient but loveless marriage with Theda Lomond, a star of silent films whose career has stalled. Theda is determined to get back in the limelight, and very little else matters to her, including her husband. It isn’t really a hardship for Jack. He is not exactly emotionally invested in the showbiz marriage either. The household includes Jack’s tight-lipped, all-seeing butler, Mr. Quigg, who rarely makes his personal opinions known except with an upraised eyebrow or artfully silent response.
In the midst of studio ballyhoo and screaming fans, Jack climbs aboard a shining Ford Trimotor airplane to fly to South America to shoot his latest film on location. Jack’s idea of “on location” is a lovely city where he can get all the cocktails and comforts he wants. He boards the plane to find that he is accompanied by the movie’s animal trainer and two children, Tyler and Lindy. We also meet a key character, co-pilot Clancy. He is star-struck and childishly overjoyed to meet Jack Hunter. He is friendly, and he is also a drunk. The animal trainer, by the way, is a beautiful and tough lady named Maxine Daniels. During the flight, Jack does get to South America, but not the way he expected. The plane goes down into the uncharted jungle, and the adventure begins.
“Action Jack” as he is called, finds himself in a situation where his talents are of no use, at least not in the beginning. Jack, still dressed in his best tuxedo, does not feel the least bit heroic. He falls into a hole with sharp sticks on the sides, and Max informs him that the Jivaro tribe makes such traps and the sticks are poisoned. However, she serenely informs him that the poison must be old or he would be dead already:
Turning white as a sheet, he slapped at his torso and limbs for more sticks, and removed his jacket and fiercely shook it. Perspiration dripped from his forehead.
“All right, just calm down,” Max said soothingly.
“Calm down? Calm down? I’m not used to these kinds of circumstances! You’ll have to excuse me if I’m a little hysterical!”
....... Tears welled in the actor’s eyes. “I feel funny,” he said in a high-pitched, breaking voice.
“I’m telling you, you’re fine.”
“Well, that’s great!” said Jack, nearing a state of emotional collapse. “I’ve got a few more minutes to live till something else happens! Our plane crashed! We’re lost somewhere in South America! I fell in a poison-stick pit!”
....... ”Here’s a hanky for your nose,” offered Max.
Thus begins the relationship between Jack and Max, which makes as many circles and turns as the plane on its way down. Jared’s characters are as colorful and appealing as any in Jack’s adventure movies -- Max, the children who adore Action Jack, Clancy, a native boy named Chonjo, a trader named Umberto Allejandro Quinto (“Call me Pepe”), and a capuchin monkey who adopts Jack for his own. The odd troupe of stranded strangers have to work together through the dangers and perils of the jungle, and Jack, finding courage in himself he didn’t even know he had, strives to live up to the image most of them believe about him, particularly the children:
“Captain Gunner and the Lost City of Gold. Revenge of the Python Men.” The marooned maintained their westerly direction while Tyler rattled off names of pictures that starred his movie hero, Action Jack Hunter. “Fighting Ace and the Spell of the Voodoo Women. And the one with that jewel that would get real bright…”
“Desert Paradise of Doom,” Jack recalled.
“No, it was Treasure of the Sahara Sky.”
“It was? Oh, that’s right.”
“You were in the desert in Africa. Don’t you remember?”
“Or the ever versatile Culver City. Sure, I remember. Oh, the fun we had.”
……. Lindy’s blue eyes looked up at Jack through thick glasses. “Do you remember the scene where you danced with the princess in that ballroom in Cairo?....... That was my favorite part.”
“I’d be happy to show you a few steps once we’ve returned.”
Lindy bit her lower lip, embarrassed, and said “Okay, thanks,” and hurried to catch her brother …….
When the real perils begin, Jack finds the hero in himself who wants to save the companions he has come to care for, and he puts himself in real trouble to do so. When Max is embroiled in what Jack and Clancy believe to be an insurmountable danger, Jack sees the great disappointment in Tyler and Lindy:
……. Devastated, Tyler dragged his feet to a hammock, sulking. His sister’s shoulders slumped.
Jack watched the children for a moment and then again cast his gaze into the dark jungle ……. “What are we if we have no courage, Clancy?”
The tubby copilot ……. took deep breaths and rubbed his potato head, having a pretty good idea where this was going.
Jack whirled to the kids ……. “What do you say we rescue the beautiful princess from the dreaded chest pounders of doom?”
Jared has written a book that plays like a movie in the reader’s head. It probably should be a movie – I would spend the money for a ticket. I would like to enjoy more stories about Jack. Actually, I would like to meet Jack! Jared has published articles in the style of journalism, but Jack and the Jungle Lion is his first foray into the genre of novels. His book is a great read, and like the formula of movie success for Pixar, it has that unique mix of humor that adults appreciate, as well as what I believe is a book well-suited to the 10-14 age group of readers as well.
http://www.stephenjared.com/. Be sure not to miss Jared’s special website about Jack and the Jungle Lion at http://www.jackandthejunglelion.com/. It includes wonderful pictures and materials, particularly a fictional 1935 interview with Jack by a critic who is a caustic cross between Alexander Wolcott and H.L. Mencken. The critic considers Jack kind of a no-brained ninny, and the interview is hilarious. The beautifully nostalgic artwork for Jared’s novel was created by Paul Shipper of PS Studio, DPI. Shipper has a page on the website for Jack and the Jungle Lion, and you can learn more about him at his own site, http://www.myblog-blog.psstudiodpi.com/. The book can be purchased through its website, at select bookstores and through Amazon.
Reviewed by Rebecca Barnes, March 15, 2011