Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Review - The Call of the Wild

Staring. Staring. STARING.
Today one of my seminar tutors was talking about war literature and said that Birdsong was a very bad book. I got so excited to discover a kindred spirit that I shouted "I KNOW, RIGHT?! I KNOW!" into his face. I think I alarmed him. It was worth it.

For the record, I watched the first 30 minutes of the BBC adaptation and then sunk under the sheer amount of fish-like gazing I was being subjected to. I will say it was better than its source material, but that's not difficult. (Yes, I am now firmly in the anti-Birdsong camp. It is a scourge upon this earth. Come at me.)

What was good, though - I think I may have mentioned this before - was the BBC's Sherlock. I've reviewed it - and talked about what makes a good adaptation - over at Litro, and I've also done a piece on why Culture should be for everyone (but Ulysses is very bad).

Now. I keep saying I won't review the books I read for my MA course. And then I read a set text and end up weeping covertly into an airplane window so the guy sitting next to me won't think I am mad or regretting my decision to commit an act of international terrorism (though considering this flight was going to Cork I'd have really been thinking outside the box, target-wise. Note: I am a law-abiding tender-hearted humanist. If any policemen are reading this, I'm joking, don't arrest me).

Anyway, my point is that some books are too good not to tell you about, and so it is with The Call of the Wild. 

The Call of the Wild is great in two very different ways. The first sixty pages (it's a tender morsel of a thing at just under 100 pages) make up one of the greatest wilderness novels I've ever read, simply because Jack London has realised something really crucial about wilderness novels: if your protagonist is a human man, it's never going to work out. Your guy can get busy hefting hacksaws and bringing down bison but ultimately he will feel the call of cooked food and toes that are not frostbitten, and he will go back to New York, or London, or wherever it is, and get hitched.

In fact, most wild men aren't really that wild at all. Robinson Crusoe looked at nature and saw a table, and from then on people in wilderness novels have approached the landscape in terms of the best setting for their new log cabin. But if at the centre of every man's heart is a large feather bed, in the heart of every dog lurks a wolf, ready to jump out and rip everything to shreds. Therefore, if you make your protagonist a large dog, and stick him in the middle of the snowy wastes, then shit, my friends, is going to go down and it's never going to stop.

The Call of the Wild is the story of Buck, a large dog (you see where I am going with this) who gets kidnapped from his cushy home in Southern California and shipped off to the Klondike goldrush to become a sled dog. Horribly mistreated and forced to fend for himself, his layers of good-doggishness get stripped away to reveal the neolithic badass wolf beneath. Buck goes wild, and then wilder, and it's all so incredibly hardcore that even reading it makes you feel awesome by association. By page 40 I  wanted to run straight up the nearest mountain and punch the sky in the face.

And then, just as I was powerfully psyched and ready to see Buck become king of the world, the novel changed pace and became one of the most beautiful human-dog relationships I've ever read. Buck is rescued from particularly wicked owners by the gentle woodsman John Thornton, and they fall instantly and madly in... love, I guess, that special sort of human-dog adoration that's almost better than anything you can get from another person.

This is something that has a huge capacity to affect me. I lost the canine love of my life two years ago and to a large degree I think I'm still in mourning for her. When she died it felt as though I'd lost a family member, and even now I have moments when I think of her and feel absolutely bereft, that I'm missing something I'll never get back again. So the bond between dog and human, if written well, has a great potential to make me cry. But I defy even you, dogless ones, not to feel a pang at the moment when John Thornton puts his entire life savings on the line over a bet that Buck can drag half a ton (because he thinks that Buck is the best dog there is and won't hear anyone say otherwise), and then Buck does it, on his own, out of sheer mad fidelity to his master.

Where it goes after that I won't say - but really, I just want to know where this book has been all my life. It's wonderful. Brutal and incredibly sweet by turns, it's got dogs, nature, Victorian adventure and most importantly DOGS, and I am absolutely writing my essay about it when the time comes.

And best of all, it's on the 1001 Books list.

4 stars.

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