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CLASSICS ON CASSETTE : Hearing 'The Call of the Wild'

June 11, 1989|KEITH LOVE | Love is a Times staff writer.

Imagine that you were one of the lucky ones invited to a house in the Oakland foothills on a bracing evening in 1903. The house, which rented for $35 a month, was set amid fruit trees, tall pines and poppies and looked on San Francisco Bay.

On this particular evening, Jack London gave his friends their first exposure to what was to be his masterpiece: "The Call of the Wild."

He read it out loud himself.

Today, the unabridged recordings of this classic have persuaded me that even more than reading "The Call of the Wild," listening to it transports you to that time described in the very first paragraph, in which Buck the dog is about to lose forever his sunny life in Santa Clara:

"Buck did not read the newspapers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing. . . . Men, groping in the Arctic darkness, had found a yellow metal, and because steamship and transportation companies were booming the find, thousands of men were rushing into the Northland. These men wanted dogs. . . ."

As Buck's story unfolds, you almost hear the hiss of the sled runners, virtually feel the "white silence" as it envelopes man and beast. You wince as Buck gets his "education" from the unforgettable man in the red sweater.

And near the end, there is this foreboding passage as Buck and the dog sled team pull their masters toward a gold strike:

"In the fall of the year they penetrated a weird lake country, sad and silent, where wild fowl had been, but where then there was no life nor sign of life--only the blowing of chill winds, the forming of ice in sheltered places, and the melancholy rippling of waves on lonely beaches."

London expert Russ Kingman of Glen Ellen, Calif., says the author wrote "The Call of the Wild" in two months, scratching out its 32,000 words with an ink-pencil "on whatever paper he could find."

The story was written nearly five years after London spent the winter of 1897-98 in and around Dawson during the Klondike gold rush. At the time of his trek, London was a virtual ne'er-do-well who had only the vaguest idea that he wanted to be a writer. He found little of the yellow metal during his months in the Klondike, but he saw the men and dogs--and heard the tales--that were to show up in his writing.

After the reading that night in 1903, London shipped his manuscript off to the Saturday Evening Post. Did he realize what he had? Maybe not. His asking price was $700 and he included a stamped return-envelope. The magazine accepted the piece, but told him to cut 5,000 words, according to Kingman.

Soon, the Macmillan Co. offered to publish "The Call of the Wild" as a book and urged London to make an unusual deal: He would be paid $2,000 outright and would receive no future royalties from this book. In return, Macmillan promised to produce an attractive edition and promote it heavily. London agreed.

Even though the book became a steady best seller, London scholar James Lundquist and others say the author never regretted the deal because the success and distribution of "The Call of the Wild" guaranteed him top prices for his work ever after.

This tale is a pure note, a masterful piece of storytelling that addresses such enduring themes as the survival of the fittest, the organizational principle of hierarchy and the idea of racial memory.

There are at least five unabridged versions of "The Call of the Wild" in the cassette market. The listening time is four hours.

Overall, the best reading I sampled was Frank Muller's for Recorded Books. The pronunciations and inflections are virtually flawless in the Muller style. And when Buck's story is told, Muller's somber "the end" is a wonderful touch. The monthly rental fee is $9.50 plus postage. Telephone 800-638-1304; Master Card and VISA accepted.

I also recommend another, more quirky, reading of "The Call of the Wild," this one by Jim Roberts for Jimcin Recordings and distributed by Books on Tape. The rental is $15.50 a month plus postage, and for the higher price you also get three hours of London short stories read by Walter Zimmerman. Telephone 800-626-3333; VISA and Master Card.

Roberts takes some getting used to because of his thick New England accent. But I found that of all the readings I sampled, his had the most energy and best conveyed the sense of urgency that distinguishes "The Call of the Wild." I think teen-age listeners will especially find it compelling.

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