What do I know about Jack London? Not much really, except that he wrote adventure stories like Call of the wild and White fang, and, intriguingly, a study of London slums, People of the abyss. So, when this week’s Library of America story was “War” (1911) by Jack London, I decided to read it. You can read it too, here.
“War” is an adventure story, of sorts. It is also, obviously, a war story. The plot is a simple one: a young man of 24 or so is out on a scouting mission:
…his task was to find what he feared to find. He must go on, and on, until somewhere, some time, he encountered another man, or other men, from the other side, scouting, as he was scouting, to make a report, of having come in touch.
I like the way London universalises his story by using no names. There are only two characters that count: “the young man with the quick black eyes”, our protagonist, and “the man with the ginger beard” , whom he meets along the way. It’s a short, short story and is told in two parts. In the first we are introduced to the young man and learn that
He was no coward, but his courage was only that of the average civilised man, and he was looking to live, not die.
In this part he comes across “the man with the ginger beard”. In part two, still on his scouting mission, he comes across what appears to be “a deserted farmhouse” where, after being tempted (not biblically, but the allusion is biblical nonetheless) by apples, he has his second encounter with “the man with the ginger beard”. I am being purposefully vague here as I do not want to give away what is a quick and worthwhile read.
The story is sparely told. The language is simple and evocative, with minimal use of adjectives, giving a sense of a world pared to the elementals:
It was high noon of a breathless day of heat.
Twice he essayed to start, and twice he paused. He was appalled by his own loneliness.
Another day, hot and breathless.
Again outside, he led the horse around the barn and invaded [my emphasis] the orchard.
This is a story about the irony and inhumanity of war. It is not a new story really but, due primarily to the tight way in which London engages our imagination and builds to the climax, it is shocking nonetheless. Clearly there’s more to Jack London than I thought!