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New lives for 'Call of the Wild' author

James Haley'sbiography explores the facts and fiction of Jack London.

Review by Jonah Raskin

San Francisco Chronicle

The subtitle of Wolf: The Lives of Jack London gets to the nub of James L. Haley's gripping narrative about the bestselling American author: the enduring riddle of London's multifaceted life. A newcomer to the field of London biography, Haley understands what longtime scholars have often failed to see: London had multiple lives, and often explored his own identities in his fiction.

Haley divides Wolf into 14 chapters, each dedicated to an exploration of one of London's many selves, with "Wolf" - the name London assigned himself - linking his different selves. The first chapter, The Work Beast, describes the physical labor the youthful London endured in factories. Later chapters portray him as oyster pirate, seal hunter, tramp, prospector, war correspondent, rancher and more.

Wolf is the most recent in a long line of biographies about London that began with his death in 1916 and has continued uninterrupted since then. Biographers in every era have reinterpreted London, and Haley does so for our era. He is far more honest about London's flaws than most biographers, and his book is brilliant in parts, though not consistently outstanding. The jewel-like section begins with Chapter 7, "The Aspiring Writer," and continues through Chapter 11, "The Celebrity." The last three chapters of Wolfgo by too swiftly, and without the kind of deeper reflection needed to make sense of the last decade of London's life and the allegations that he committed suicide.

Biographers have rarely been kind to Jack London. Perhaps the most unkind have turned him into somebody London really was not, though he thought he was in his stories: Golden Boy of the American West, hero of the American dream. Instead, Haley avoids the myths London spun about himself. Dedicated fans might be miffed by his assertion that it's nearly impossible to separate "creative warp from factual, contextual weft" in London's writing, but that is the kind of honesty the subject of every biography deserves.

Wolf: The Lives of Jack London

By James L. Haley

Basic Books, 364 pages, $29.95