The Call of the Wild and Other Stories
On the one hand these stories are absurd, investing sled dogs and their drivers with godlike qualities. The Alaskan wilderness is timeless, endless, mythic. The prose becomes hugely purple: for example, a scrap between a couple of dogs is treated as a titanic battle. But this very effusiveness is what lifts the stories from the banal – if you’re prepared to run with the mythology, there’s some wonderfully heroic stuff here in the vein of Conan, where men are real men, and dogs are personifications of wild primordial urges. Buck isn’t a dog, he’s all dogs, he’s all dogs throughout history. He’s also The Warrior, The Companion, The Leader, and The Hunter.
I’m not saying it’s not rough out in those extreme conditions, or that there isn’t a world of contrast between soft city living and harsh tundra survival, but London goes wonderfully over the top with this:
This first theft marked Buck as fit to survive in the hostile Northland environment. It marked his adaptability, his capacity to adjust himself to changing conditions, the lack of which would have meant swift and terrible death. It marked, further, the decay or going to pieces of his moral nature, a vain thing and a handicap in the ruthless struggle for existence. It was all well enough in the Southland, under the law of love and fellowship, to respect private property and personal feelings. But in the Northland, under the law of club and fang, whoso took such things into account was a fool, and insofar as he observed them he would fail to prosper.
The book isn’t entirely composed of this macho faux-philosophy (cf. ‘Starship Troopers’ and the execrable ‘Gor’ novels), but it underpins the stories. The final story, ‘That Spot’ (this edition adds a couple of his later dog stories) is quite consciously a ‘tall’ one, but, whether or not he took himself seriously, London plays the others with a straight bat. There is an admiration for an unforgiving landscape where weakness cannot be hidden, and while there is some arrogance in an author creating the urbanely regal writer of ‘Brown Wolf’ (the other added story), it is a nice, hopefully self-deprecating moment when the down-to-earth, inarticulate frontiersman, challenged on a point of law by the complacent sophisticate,
…carefully looked the poet up and down as though measuring the strength of his slenderness.
The Klondiker’s face took on a contemptuous expression as he said finally, “I reckon there’s nothin’ in sight to prevent me takin’ the dog right here an’ now.”
We can see a tension from London’s own colourful life. On the one hand he’s proud (and massively relieved) to have used his intelligence and writing skills to escape the stultifying drudgery of factory work, and the massive depredation and ordeal of prospecting in Alaska (his health appears to have been permanently damaged from his year nearly starving in the frozen North). On the other he’s contemptuous of soft living, with Buck as his model only discovering his true noble self through escaping luxury and living a violent, harsh, independent, hard-working life.
The guy himself was an interesting personality, a bit of a celebrity in his time. Like Herman Melville and Robert Lewis Stevenson, some of the larger than life incidents are actually based on pretty extreme real life experiences. Is he just exaggerating characters and experiences to make a good yarn, or is there some real insight in describing how conditions shape morality? I think he’s pushing things, at times almost comically, too far (I mean, would you really entitle a chapter ‘The Dominant Primordial Beast’ without being mock heroic?) – but it adds sinew and poetry to what otherwise could merely be some animal stories. This, thank goodness, is far more Kipling than Disney (and whoever sucked all the potency out of ‘The Jungle Book’ by combining those two should have been shot). Moreover the individual stories that make up the book both stand alone and integrate effectively. Actually, upon reflection, the whole movement of the book, introduction, progress and conclusion, is one of the most satisfying I’ve come across.
By the way, I probably never would have read this book except for a pretty bizarre coincidence. My wife had left a few ‘kids’ books on our floor that she found in the back of a church cupboard or something – she was going to donate them to the Salvos. I wouldn’t have even particularly noticed except the name ‘Jack London’ leapt out at me because the night before I’d just read ‘The Death Artist’, a short story by Alexander Jablokov. It opened with a vignette of a cold northern death, highlighting the depth of relationship between a tough as nails wilderness man and his dog – ‘Jack London’. Expecting something sentimentally ‘Lassie’ flavoured, I flicked open this book by an author with that same name and read:
…All that stirring of old instincts which at stated periods drives men out from the sounding cities to forest and plain to kill things by chemically propelled leaden pellets, the blood lust, the joy of the kill – all this was Buck’s, only it was infinitely more intimate. He was ranging at the head of the pack, running the wild thing down, the living meat, to kill with his own teeth, and wash his muzzle to the eyes in warm blood.
There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad on a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight. He was sounding the deeps of his nature that were deeper than he, going back into the womb of Time. He was mastered by the sheer surging of life, the tidal wave of being, the perfect joy of each muscle, joint and sinew in that it was everything that was not death, that it was aglow and rampant, expressing itself in movement, flying exultantly under the stars and over the face of dead matter that did not move…
Kids’ book? (Just glanced at a few amazon reviews – whoever thought this was aimed primarily at children? Even my edition is from the ‘illustrated junior library’ – a misleading title. Sure the black and white depictions are in some sense childish, and people gushing about how ‘true’ it is are not speaking from experience but imagination – but the myth is what’s so engaging. Adults should be more aware of this: I’m not sure how ideal it is for kids to utterly embrace it). Whatever, it got me in and I’m glad to have come across the engaging and unique voice I found here. I’m sure the Jablokov’s story was part homage, and I suspect he would be pleased to know that his reference put another reader onto London. Weird as that in the 24 hours that book was in my room I became aware of that name for the first time from another source.