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2 FOR THE ROAD : THE SHORT STORIES OF JACK LONDON; The Authorized Edition With Definitive Texts : selected by Earle Labor, Robert C. Leitz III, I. Milo Shepard (Macmillan: $35; 832 pp.) : THE CALL OF THE WILD By Jack London introduction by E. L. Doctorow (The Library of America : $8.50, paper; 102 pp.)

December 02, 1990|Robert Roper | Roper's most recent novel is "Mexico Days" (Grove Weidenfeld); a book about a French woman mountain-climber. "In Caverns of Blue Ice," is due out next spring from Sierra Club/Little, Brown. and

Jack London used to like to eat raw-meat sandwiches, and he sometimes fancied himself a "blood beast" rampaging through life, point man for the fittest and whitest race around.

Those and other popular intellectual currents of the 19th Century all found their way to Jack; our literature's most astonishing autodidact, he truly contained multitudes, and one finds reflected in his stories every tendency and big idea, each clever scheme and heavy lumbering system. He was a Marxist, a democratic socialist, a Darwinian, a Spencerian, even a Nietschean; toward the end of his life, we find him avidly studying the recently translated works of Jung, whose notion of a collective unconscious Jack had anticipated in several stories. A fanatic reader from an early age, London could swallow whole libraries at a single gulp. As he claimed later in life, "I always could read and write, and have no recollection antedating such a condition."

Maybe for this reason, his best work reads like the products of a lonely, word-crazed boy of about 12, who, unaccountably, finds himself possessed of the verbal resources of an authentic narrative genius.

Stories such as "Love of Life," in which a lost miner starves to death inch by inch, or "In a Far Country," another tale of starvation and madness, or the famous "To Build a Fire," the most widely published short story in world literature, are inexpressibly lurid, almost unbearably raw and powerful. The 12-year-old boy in London is the same one in you, or in me, who liked to see how the bad guy got it in the end, the precise look on his face as the spear point tore into his guts, the way he staggered those final bloody steps.

This is not to say that there is an obsession, an unhealthy fascination, with the gory and the awful. On the contrary, one comes away from the best of London's stories feeling peaceful and cleansed, subdued and transfigured. The best of the best, such as "The Law of Life," "Moon-Face" and (a personal favorite) "All Gold Canyon," which tells the story of a whiskery, Gabby Hayes-type placer miner, succeed in the classic manner, through strict economy of means, intensity of feeling, and absolute fidelity to the tale-telling contract. Not a word or a sensation is wasted, yet the whole world seems implicated in the brief ramble across the narrowed field.

As a native son of California, Jack was well positioned to partake of the Klondike gold rush. He hurried north, did his best to get rich, lost everything, and got decently rich in the end anyway.

Alaska in winter made him as a writer: The Klondike was where the "cold of space smote the unprotected tip of the planet, and he, being on that unprotected tip, received the full force of the blow." He awoke: He assumed, in the clarity of the frozen moment, the mantle of his full powers.

In "The Call of the Wild," Alaska functions as testing ground, as pitiless destroyer, as geographic and meteorological answer to everything sappy and sentimental in man (and dog). There is a gleeful embrace of the very conditions of dire peril, of the stark terms of the contract between sentient being and indifferent universe. Again, only a 12-year-old, only the part of one's consciousness that remains eternally young, can get solidly behind this idea of life as harsh and thrilling "test," as opportunity to regress, to become "The Dominant Primordial Beast" (title of Chapter III). Buck, the dog-hero of "Call of the Wild," does manage to regress, entirely and remorselessly, and this devolution is his glory, as well as our great joy as readers.

Like Robert Louis Stevenson, whom he resembles in other respects (narrative energy, verbal color, love of the lurid, the bizarre), London seems to have "stumbled" onto a tale with profound mythic echoes, just as Stevenson merely "stumbled" on the mythic, multileveled "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." But certain authors put themselves in the path of such happy, classic accidents, and London, like Stevenson, was a writer of extreme sensitivity, alert to spiritual and emotional vibrations as well as to the promptings of his unconscious. All his life he was troubled by horrifying, astonishing dreams, and while he often seems a tub-thumping materialist, concerned only with the workings of cold, inexorable law, the rest of existence seeps willy-nilly into the background of his stories, filling the shadows with uncanny shapes.

In "The Red One," a story he wrote when he was already dying, he had this to say about Bassett, a scientist captured by Solomon Islands head-hunters: "But (his) relapses grew more frequent, his brief convalescences less and less vigorous . . . until he came to know, beyond the last promptings of the optimism inherent in so tremendous a constitution . . . that he would never live to cross the grasslands.

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