Tuesday 29 November 2011

Steve Wilson's 'The Lost Traveller'


Book Review of:
(Macmillan London Ltd 1976, Panther Granada
Paperback 1984, ISBN 0-586-05870-2 – 252pp,
USA St Martins Press, 1977)


Desolation row revisited. Holocaust Alley slight return. A motorcycle grail quest epic, a Science Fiction Western, a ‘Zen & The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance’ by the MAN WHO WAS THERE! A gamma-ray Easy Rider. All this, and more. The legacy of the atomic storm – ‘a convulsion, a climax of the energy dance’, has produced the REAL ‘Greening Of America’. Coalescing out of the radiation-debris crawls all of the mythic archetypes of Americana, all of the counter-culture heroes from the hard-nosed free-living bohemian legends. A wino’s crazy midnight fantasy of endless green plains, of Hells Angel legions with ‘the blades of the drug working in their eyes and their blood’, of long-distance interstate truckers working the juice-route across the nuclear dead-lands, of noble visionary Native American tribes in touch with the transcendental pulse of the universe…

Steve Wilson alchemises an intriguing mix – one not entirely dissimilar to the one attempted by inveterate Deviant Mick Farren in his ‘Texts Of Festival’ (1973) and the ‘Quest Of The DNA Cowboys’ (1976/7) trilogy, and there are some this-way-that-way stylistic feedbacks. In Farren’s initial novel, salvaged Rock ‘n’ Roll vinyl – Bob Dylan, the Doors, is revered as mystic revelation by the survivors of World War III. In the Steve Wilson novel there’s a Jerry Garcia quote plus references to the San Francisco hip poetry revival in the person of Gary Snyder, with great gob-fulls of Beat-styled prose and drunken visions of ‘bubbles of saliva between its teeth, the freckles on its glistening gums’. In the Farren novel literates take the names of Rock writers – Nanker & Phelge, while in the Steve Wilson mythology they assume the names of poets, Wordsworth, Eliot and Hemingway.

‘The Lost Traveller’ is Steve Wilson’s first novel. Born in 1943, the son of Sports-writer Peter Wilson, he read Modern History at Oxford and gained a Diploma with distinction in English Literature at London University. Then he took a ship out for Argentina, crossed to Chile, thumb-tripped and bussed it to Mexico City and up to L.A., then spent the psychedelic summer of 1967 on the West Coast involved with the San Francisco Diggers. His group, called the ‘Communications Company’, distributed leaflets in the acid-happy Electric Kool-Aid Haight-Ashbury zone for ‘the survival/amusement of its inhabitants’. It could be said he’s still working in much the same vein, still sees the salvation of America brought about through the traditional-pioneer ethics within its chemistry that are now relegated to its outlaws, its outsiders, its odd anarchistic sub-cultures. It could be that he’s right. ‘Principally’ he writes, ‘a central government which concentrates power and wealth in itself, serves its own preoccupation with control and growth, and ignores the real needs of the communities it subjects. The growth preoccupation automatically leads to abuse of the land and of human resources, and to the creation of phantom enemies – projections of itself’. He contends that ‘if we fear our enemies past a certain point, we take on their worst characteristics, we become them’. See the contemporary relevance’s…?

But this is no barren eco-political tract, it’s all about energy. It may be allegorical, but it’s also vastly immensely readable, with just the exact blend of sex and violence to make it move. Wilson won the 1974 ‘Club International’ short story competition, and went on to text-illuminate the pages of three further issues, and those of its soft-porn stable-mate ‘Men Only’. The sexual charge one would expect from such jazz-mags overflows into ‘The Lost Traveller’ – including a three-way Hells Angel gang-bang session on a riverbank. The novel opens on an almost comic-satiric note when, in the immediate aftermath of the apocalypse thermonuclear exchange – BLAM!, the US President is ‘making his drug-fuddled way to the White House West’ only to be rescued from murderous looters by a division of Angels. ‘President embraced President’, and two brief wasteland centuries later the Angels have become an integral part of the independent Fief republic. The quest-proper begins when three of the Angels – Belial, Milt and the pre-cog Long Range John embark on a journey across the devastated continent towards the Empire Of The East, to rendezvous with a scientist who’s about to defect. As the west coast embodies all that is hip, the East embodies all that is straight, is W.A.S.P, is founder-family orientated, tracing its speech modes back to England and its military battledress to grotesque machismo parodies of conformist American Football armour. But as you’d expect, the novel’s premises are not quite that simple, not quite that two-dimensional. The Angel’s freedom is also partially illusory, partially a form of parasitism, or at best a form of interdependence. The Angels ‘group ethos would seem to be stoical. But also unexpectedly conservative’.

The atomic deluge is a cleansing fire, a baptism of flames from which the world is reborn. The Native American nations endured the nuclear-war to emerge as the only wholly creditable group in the entire novel. They ‘felt the coming of a new age. They freed the few buffalo that had survived, like themselves, as captives of the whites, and together they journeyed to the plains, and there they lived, men and animals, and grew in numbers and in spirit. The old ways returned, and there were mighty warriors, for they felt they were living the birth of a new first age, an age of great spirit power. And they remembered how their people had been deceived before by the Wasichu into surrendering their hunting and their lands, and being shut away from the earth’. Long Range John, an outsider among neo-barbarian outsiders hits metaphysical truth with the Lakota tribe halfway across the trek, and emerges from the rituals and incantations as some kind of existential messiah. Yet the novel is not anti-technology, merely against abuses of technology and State Power as typified by the Empire Of The East. Motorcycles represent limitless freedom, it’s technology and power-structures that are inexorable. Faced with the challenge from the east, and with Wilson’s assertion about ‘taking on the worst characteristics’ of a feared enemy, the Fief inevitably must reject the Angels, the Native American tribes must again be decimated. The salvation of freedom, Wilson seems to be saying, must be a personal thing – the inward-looking route as taken by Long Range John.

But Wilson makes the diverse fusion work, carrying the coincidences of the plotline effortlessly (the killing of the father, Badhand, for example). He has skills to conjure the plot-ingredients together, investing its concepts with the power and sensual thumbprints of reality. Science Fiction has never been as amoebically eclectic as it was in the late 1970’s, drawing elements from multiple mythologies to refurbish its idiosyncratically shambling and baroque tradition. ‘The Lost Traveller’ is a first novel, and displays many of the distinguishing characteristics of the species, attempts to rearrange an entire literature through often garish wide-screen techniques, attempts to be instantly significant and profound on as many levels as possible, attempts to create a major tour-de-force through a basically naïve intellectual overkill of concepts and art. But ‘The Lost Traveller’ is unique to the genre in that Wilson has the ability to carry the overkill pretensions and aspirations. From the vast scenario, to the small poetic observation – ‘wind whining and singing through the chinks in the walls, in the corners, by the larger gaps, snow lay where it had blown in, in neat lines, as if it had been poured from a sack…’

Grab this novel!

When this feature first appeared in print Steve Wilson was so pleased to have found a reviewer he considered to so-exactly have caught the full nuances of his writing that he immediately straddled his high-powered BMW motorcycle and revved it clear up the M1 all the way to Ossett to stay over and make direct contact. He’s a great guy. We got on fine. I later published one of his stories in an issue of the ‘Ludds Mill’ magazine from Eight Miles Higher. He gave me a copy of the ‘Twelfth Ghost Book’ anthology (edited by Patricia Parkin & James Hale, Barrie & Jenkins, ISBN 0-214-20216X, February 1977) which includes his fine story “Ghosts There Must Be With Me In This Old House”, plus a motorcycle article from ‘Men Only’ (November 1977), ‘The After Midnight Ghost Book’ (edit James Hale, Hutchinson, 1980) with his “O Keep The Cat Far Hence”, & ‘The Twilight Book’ (edit James Hale, Gollancz, 1981) which includes “My Breath Is Inside You”. He also talked about his projected book ‘The Complete British Motorcycles 1950-1977’ (commissioned for Macmillan) which eventually appeared as ‘Classic British Motorcycles: The Cutting Edge – Road Bikes 1950-1975’ (Salamander Books, May 1998). It also led to me writing about his subsequent ‘Dealer’ novel-series…


Steve Wilson said...

Thanks, Andy - been a long time.

Steve Wilson said...

Thanks, Andy - been a long time.

steve wilson said...

Me again, Andy. Re the postscript: the bike I came to see you on wasn't a BMW (that was the Dealer in the first book, 'Dealer's Move' !). And the first factual bike book(s) were, in 6, count 'em, volumes, "British Motor Cycles since 1950", published by PSL/Haynes. There have been 9 other bike books including the one you mentioned, plus a book for my daughter featuring a talking BSA ('When Rosie Met Anneka',Panther Publishing)and a travel book about a ride I took in 2009 on a 1954 Ariel single from Cape Town to Zambia and back, 'Short Way Up' (Haynes again). But what about you Andy, tell me all. My e-mail is:
Look forward to hearing from you. Steve

Anonymous said...

Steve Wilson is an excellent journalist and always a joy to read. I've not seen any motorcycle articles from Steve since he published Short way up, maybe he's retired ? Anyway his writing skills are certainly missed as there is a real shortage of quality material in the motorcycle monthlies.

Unknown said...

Steve is definitely still writing........
Recently he published a new Bonneville book, a book about Factory Original Triumph's, and I believe he has another book about due?
I recently saw an article by him on the Triumph TRW in Classic Bike as well.
I enjoy his writing style immensely!