I went on a Jack London spree yesterday, because a story I read years and years ago--in high school maybe?--stuck with me, left me frozen, you might say, a story titled "To Build a Fire." What I remembered was the oppressive, naked cold that London created spectacularly in that story, and I wanted to read it again because it's hot and muggy right now and I'm trying to write a scene that takes place on the coldest night of the year in the Yukon of the Great Plains. What better preparation than a Jack London chill.
Amazing story, really--and London is an amazing writer. I'd never read Call of the Wild before, a incredibly famous short novel written from the point of view of a dog. It didn't have me on the edge of the chair like "To Build a Fire," but I had no trouble determining how it is that Jack London still, a century later, has an immense and loyal following.
Maybe I just don't go there anymore, but it seems that the world he chronicles no longer exists with the end of the frontier. Really, in both stories, a major antagonist is nature itself. I can't even remember the last book or story I read (Steinbeck, maybe) in which nature plays the villian or even has a starring role. I suppose it's a sign of the times: even as a nation we don't make things anymore, don't create, don't cut a swath through uncharted territory; we just buy and sell paper, wheel and deal, some say.
London was a strange guy--a socialist who was as much an entrepeneur as anyone in turn-of-the-century San Fran, where he grew up; a avowed racist who deplored the way white people decimated native cultures; a champion of women's rights--and multi-dimensional female characters--who treated those women closest to him like a mysogynist. I suppose one might say he was mightily human.
After reading "To Light a Fire Again," I still feel cheated when I think that London himself never almost died in -75 degree temps somewhere out in the Yukon. I'd swear he did. That he dreamed it all up seems such a lie, a cheat.
But then, most fiction is--a lie, a cheat. Maybe that's why writing novels is hard on the soul and why Plato hated it and many do.
No matter. Saturday night, I loved Julia and Julie--a great film--even though you could count the men in the theater on one hand. Yesterday, however, a Jack London Sunday and the first day of NFL football, I was back in the world where, if you got an itch, you scratch it--man and beast, life and death. Grab me a helping of that testosterone.
All of that from Jack London, a guy known in his day for his rugged American individualism as well as his streetcorner socialist rants.
Ain't we got fun.