I remember reading The Call of the Wild, in an abridged version, as a young teenager. I loved and hated it. I always have a hard time reading a book that is full of cruelty to the helpless, particularly children or animals. Oliver Twist has much of one, and The Call of the Wild has the other. While the book was also filled with great beauty and wonderful characters, stirring stories and memorable friendships, I haven't read another Jack London book since.
But another trip meant another long drive and the chance to hear another book. Moomin Light got me several books on tape from the library, and The Sea Wolf was one of them. I decided to see what my 46 year old mind made of Jack London. After all, Dickens (whom I also disliked as a teen) is now a favorite, with David Copperfield having a place of honor on my shelves. This was an unabridged version, and I quickly realized how much I probably missed in the abridged London I read as a teen.
The Sea Wolf pits an ultimate idealist against his rational counterpart, an ultimate materialist, and wastes no time getting the reader right to the heart of the matter. That was familiar to me from The Call of the Wild, and the style was strikingly American and recognizably London's own.
The powerful story contains much brutality, as you might expect on board a turn of the century seal hunting ship, owned and captained by a man with a reputation as the most monstrous skipper in the fleet, but it also contains a tender love story, and gripping debates about temptation, the soul, immortality, life, power, courage, and much more. "Wolf" Larsen, the captain, has limited all his reasoning to what he can "pick up and look at," having the courage and corruption of his convictions that life is just a "yeasty ferment, where the stronger destroy and eat the weaker." His arguments are compelling logically, and the words and the action seem to make a mockery of idealism, faith, and God.
But the story blows back and forth, like the weather that is so powerfully described, and in the hearts and actions of the characters you see a different logic gradually worked out, and different conclusions drawn.
It's easy to see why this book was a best seller in the early 1900s, and made Jack London's name and career. It is full of adventure, rich in believable and complex characters, is told in a voice all his own, and has a symmetry that is deeply satisfying. I may be unable to totally suspend my disbelief in all that Humphrey Van Weyden manages to learn and do by the end - I think Mr. London lays it on a bit too thick, how completely made over is the 98 pound weakling from the start of the story - but I can easily forgive that flaw for the rest of the story, and for all the unforgettable characters.