“What was it made a man go to sea? What made a man leave everything behind and drift away across the world, bound for nowhere to anywhere?”
At times full of human longing and literary romanticism, at other times bruising and tragic, No Traveller Returns is an interesting read on many levels. We are on board the Pacific crossing of the SS Lichenfield, carrying eighty thousand barrels of highly explosive naphtha.
The book, as son Beau L’Amour reveals in a detailed and well-written preface, was the first novel-length work written by his father, Louis. “The first indication that Dad was working on this book is in a journal entry from June 9, 1938,” writes Beau. At the time Louis was promoting his semi-autobiographical stories based on his world travels. Louis wanted to be known as a “self-educated yet blue-collar adventurer.”
But those stories didn’t sell at the time; the 300 million books would come later.
As a publishing project and as a story, No Traveller Returns is fascinating. Beau writes (in an equally frank and fascinating afterword) that he felt like “an archaeologist excavating then rebuilding the ruins of an ancient city.” Whatever work Beau did, it’s seamlessly woven into his father’s original fabric.
Reading this might be a matter of setting expectations. No Traveller Returns is a steady story of rough men, their working conditions, their reasons for shipping out, the grudges and feuds among them—all contrasted with the sometimes poetic descriptions of the sea.
“The night was a symphony of velvet darkness in which millions of stars swung their tiny lanterns overhead. Not a gleam was in sight that might have been another ship, but miles behind and to the north a Matson passenger liner was bound away from San Francisco to Tahiti.”
Short chapters, entries from “The Private Log of John Harlan, Second Mate,” interject various observations about the ship’s the mission. Each of Harlan’s sections set up chapters devoted to various characters—Able Seaman Pete Brouwer, Ordinary Seaman David Jones, Fireman Fritz Schuman and so on. There are stories within stories—shore leave brawls, women left behind, debts owed, scores to settle.
Harlan is an observer of human nature. “Sometimes, it seems, the greatest possibilities for drama are disguised beneath the most unexpected exteriors, and one never knows when circumstance is going to lift some apparently inferior person to almost heroic stature.” (A reasonable bit of foreshadowing right there.)
Harlan is also keenly aware of the strange fact that mankind even exists at all. He has plenty of time at sea to ponder and add pages to the ship’s log.
“For instance, a very slight change in atmospheric conditions or a difference of a few degrees of temperature, and we might no longer exist. A plague resulting from those new conditions, or any of a multitude of other things, might severely alter our development. Man tries to learn all the rules, tries to build walls about himself to withstand the elements and the forces of his own civilization, and to protect himself form all the danger, yet three is so little that can be done.”
The contemplative scenes are balanced with fistfights, drinking, brawling, scheming; men squaring up old grudges, etcetera.
As the ship’s course continues there are hints of the looming danger of the cargo, the risk in the holds below like the collective dark subconsciousness of the crew. A brief mention of a seemingly minor collision with a dockside crane in Liverpool—could it be important? When Able Seaman Dennis McGuire senses that first “potato vine of aromatics, a tendril of hydrocarbons,” we have a pretty good hunch of what’s coming and the title of the book also suggests how this all might end.
Kudos to Beau L’Amour for the careful extraction of this relic from the stash of his late father’s works—and for bringing it to light. (No Traveller Returns is one in a series of books under the banner Louis L’Amour’s Lost Treasures. One volume of collected works came out in 2017, another is due this coming November.)
No Traveller is beautifully produced with detailed drawings of the ship, a glossary, and the fascinating preface and afterword that bookend the story itself. It’s easy to see what drew Louis to write about the sea—likely the same pull that drew Melville and Conrad, too. The story won’t be confused with an action-packed thriller, but there is decided undertow that pulls you right along.
Four stars for the story, five for the yeoman’s publishing effort.