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Saint Jack Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Saint Jack centers on the efforts of Jack Flowers, a middle-aged American expatriate in Singapore, to achieve a success that he believes is almost within his grasp. Jack is an eternal optimist who considers being poor “the promise of success.” Jack is ostensibly employed as a water clerk for Hing, a ship chandler, but he uses the contacts he makes through his work for Hing, who pays him little, to conduct his real business: He is a pimp who obtains customers for his “girls” from among sailors, tourists, and the lonely inhabitants of his “tedious little island.”

The first section of the novel focuses on Jack’s having to escort William Leigh, a British accountant from Hong Kong, who has come to Singapore to work on Hing’s books. Leigh is a stuffy dullard who ignores Jack’s suggestions about how he could be spending his time. When Leigh realizes that he is a hustler and smugly asks, “How do you stand it?” Jack is upset. He sees pimping as a means to an end, realizes that it is degrading, but tries to carry it out as much as possible within a code of conduct. The ambiguous nature of morality is central to all the actions and themes of Saint Jack. The unease which Leigh causes Jack is increased when the accountant suddenly dies of a heart attack, awakening Jack to a sense of his own mortality.

The novel returns, by means of a flashback, to Jack’s arrival in Singapore fourteen years earlier, when he “enjoyed a rare kind of happiness, like the accidental discovery of renewal.” This sense of or attempt at renewal becomes a pattern in Jack’s life. There are then flashbacks to the cause of his exile. At thirty-five, Jack goes to college on the GI Bill and tries to write a novel. When he is charged with possessing drugs without a prescription and procuring drugs for a minor, he flees the United States and becomes a seaman. He intends never to return to America, accepting his exile as final, almost as inevitable.

Prior to his encounter with Leigh, Jack has two opportunities to achieve the big success of which he dreams. He establishes Dunroamin, his own house of prostitution, but is kidnapped by one of the secret societies which control vice in Singapore. The thugs tattoo Chinese obscenities on his arms and burn down his house. Later, he has the tattooed Chinese characters converted into flowers—a symbol of his philosophy of making the best of awkward situations, his never giving in to his frequent bad luck.

His second limited success comes when Eddie Shuck, a shady operator working for the American government, puts Jack in charge of a brothel for servicemen on five-day leaves from Vietnam. (The dubious morality of this enterprise is meant to parallel that of the war in Vietnam.) Jack’s...

(The entire section is 707 words.)