Before Adam
Jack London
Big Tooth lives in prehistoric times with the "Folk." There are also the "Tree People" and the "Fire People." The Fire People have discovered how to cook hyena hamburgers, and the Tree People have learned to leap from branch to branch.

The Folk are at the bottom of the totem pole, but since they live in caves high up in the hills, they become stoners --- stoning the wild animals and the Fire People who arrive to eat them. After they've had a scary raid, the Folk get together and have a good laugh, giving the narrator time to philosophize with a certain dry charm:

    These "hee-hee councils" splendidly illustrate the inconsecutiveness and inconsequentiality of the Folk. Here are we, drawn together by mutual rage and the impulse towards coöperation, led off into forgetfulness by the establishment of a rude rhythm. We were sociable and gregarious, and these singing and laughing councils satisfied us. In ways the hee-hee council was an adumbration of the councils of primitive man, and of the great national assemblies and international conventions of latter-day man.

"We Folk of the younger world lacked speech, and whenever we were so drawn together we precipitated babel, out of which arose the unanimity of rhythm that contained within itself the essentials of art yet to come. It was art nascent."

§     §     §

This sounds pretty fancy, all these words like "gregarious" and "adumbration" and "inconsecutiveness" and "inconsequentiality." How does London make it believable, coming out of the mouth of a young man who is nearly an ape, one with a vocabulary of 30 - 40 words?

Ah, like life, it's all a dream. You see, our young man is a prodigious dreamer, here in the 20th Century --- and Big Tooth and Red Eye and Lop Ear are his dreams, what one of his professors calls part of his "racial memory." Does it work? Does London pull off this tough literary trick? Yes. How? Style, pure and simple. London was a top-notch adventure writer.

I first read him sixty years ago (shudder!) and still remember with pleasure his description of the Klondike and wolves and men alone in the wild and, especially, his tales of freezing to death in the ice-banks of the far north. For years, I cherished his "warm glow" inside that begins to spread, slowly, as one lies dying inside a snow bank, getting sleepy, making the prospect of being gone very pleasant. I used to think that when I got to that point in my life when I was a toothless wrinkled old buzzard that I'd just take a flight to Anchorage, rent a car, go out in the wilderness, drive off the road into a bank of snow, and cozy up to the steering wheel as I let the warm glow inside take me off so peacefully.

However, now that I am an ancient, totally bruxed-out old biddy, instead of spending my last hours freezing my ass in a snow bank, I spend my time gumming my food, cursing the government, and reading old loves. Like Jack London.

§     §     §

Big Tooth's best friend is Lop Ear, and his worst enemy is Red Eye. BT travels by jumping from branch to branch, or loping along the ground, assisted by his long arms.

He falls in love with the Swift One. They are afraid of the dark, and wild animals, so they live in a cave with a tiny entrance so that big Red Eye and the pack dogs, and the tigers and wolves cannot get in and eat them up.

The picture that London paints of our ancestors is far from the idyll painted by Voltaire. Not only is life nasty, short, and brutish, but the Folk take delight in dragging women around by their hair, beating up on the old Folk, laughing at their weaknesses, and defying the evolution of the dog/man relationship by trapping puppies and disemboweling them.

When they are not doing that, they are scolding each other (with their tiny vocabularies --- in various guttural noises) and shaking with terror at the dangers about them. Our narrator doesn't think much of his ancestor:

    It is I, the modern, who look back across the centuries and weigh and analyze the emotions and motives of Big Tooth, my other self. He did not bother to weigh and analyze. He was simplicity itself. He just lived events, without ever pondering why he lived them in his particular and often erratic way.

Not only does our narrator consider his ancestor especially dumb, he gets to ponder the paradox of his dreams. In other words, he dreams of Big Tooth dreaming. And what does this proto BT dream of? His "other self:"

    back to the winged reptiles and the clash and the onset of dragons, and beyond that to the scurrying, rodent-like life of the tiny mammals, and far remoter still, to the shore slime of the primeval sea.

His reaction? "I cannot, I dare not, say more. It is all too vague and complicated and awful." You know the feeling. Dreaming about dreaming. And on top of that, dreaming about a former self who is dreaming about a former self who is dreaming about a former self who is...

You get it. It is "all too vague and complicated and awful."

--- Patricia J. Doyle
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