by Jack London
Buck. Hell of a dog.
This is one of those that I didn’t read when I was supposed to in my intellectually degenerate youth. I really wish I’d given this one a shot back then, though, as it would have affirmed my repressed animal intuition, just as being thrust into the Yukon wilderness did for the domesticated Buck.
Yep, the protagonist is a dog. Buck grew up a privileged dog on the property of a judge in Cailfornia, enjoying a life alongside his owners on hunting trips and warming his paws at the fireplace. You know, the sort of hearty, happy life a shepherd/St. Bernard mix might dream of. That is until one of the hired help secretly sells him to dog sledders from way up north. It isn’t long before Buck finds himself in the extremely harsh, brutal, primitive world of the frozen Yukon wilderness among dogs and men of a different order.
Buck must learn the ways of the wild, “the law of club and fang,” fast if he is going to survive.
Enough of the summary. The story is about the remarkable dog’s transformation from a domesticated, loyal family dog to a resourceful, primal ass-kicker of a dog (albeit one sold to slavery). It is incredibly beautiful.
And it’s an allegory, which invited me wonder a great deal about my own ability to survive without the sense-dulling safety net of civilized society. What if I was thrown into a world of wilderness? Could I survive? How would I fare when governed by the law of club and fang? I really do think I’d do well with the primitive life… but would not choose it.
Here’s a long excerpt from this amazing little book:
He swiftly lost the fastidiousness which had characterized his old life. A dainty eater, he found that his mates, finishing first, robbed him of his unfinished ration. There was no defending it. While he was fighting off two or three, it was disappearing down the throats of the others. To remedy this, he ate as fast as they; and, so greatly did hunger compel him, he was not above taking what did not belong to him. He watched and learned. When he saw Pike, one of the new dogs, a clever malingerer and thief, slyly steal a slice of bacon when Perrault's back was turned, he duplicated the performance the following day, getting away with the whole chunk. A great uproar was raised, but he was unsuspected; while Dub, an awkward blunderer who was always getting caught, was punished for Buck's misdeed.
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 feeling; but in the Northland, under the law of club and fang, whoso took such things into account was a fool, and in so far as he observed them he would fail to prosper.
Not that Buck reasoned it out. He was fit, that was all, and unconsciously he accommodated himself to the new mode of life. All his days, no matter what the odds, he had never run from a fight. But the club of the man in the red sweater had beaten into him a more fundamental and primitive code. Civilized, he could have died for a moral consideration, say the defense of Judge Miller's riding whip; but the completeness of his decivilization was now evidenced by his ability to flee from the defense of a moral consideration and so save his hide. He did not steal for joy of it, but because of the clamor of his stomach. He did not rob openly, but stole secretly and cunningly, out of respect for club and fang. In short, the things he did were done because it was easier to do them than not to do them.
Adaptability, cunning, physical strength, instinct, courage, and the willingness to administer violence. And even among dogs it is imagination that ensures ones survival. Those are the means of survival of the primitive life. But what about happiness?
As Buck becomes more adept at survival (among dogs and brutal men), he begins to experience something primordial rise within him. Leading the chase for a rabbit, he becomes intimate with his true dog nature:
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, the 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 depths of his nature, and of the parts 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 separate 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.
I want that.
I did this story no justice whatsoever. I highly recommend this book. It’s a life-affirming story of a dog who finds freedom, and one you will not soon forget.