Although I’m not shy about broadcasting my affection for New English Library Hell’s Angel paperbacks, I’m going to kick off the ‘Bikers in Fiction’ aspect of this blog with another personal favourite from that era with which you may not be so familiar: The Lost Traveller by Steve Wilson (UK, St Martin’s Press, 1976). Wilson was an Oxford History graduate with an MA in Literature from the University of London. He had travelled extensively and spent much of 1967 in San Francisco, Ground Zero for the ‘Summer of Love’ and the hippy counterculture. He had published short fiction in British men’s magazines, and this was his first novel, published when he was 33. He was also a true motorcycle rider and enthusiast, and has gone on to write more fiction and nonfiction about bikes, most notably the thriller 13 and the multi-volume history British Motor Cycles Since 1950.
The publisher’s original tagline ‘Holocaust Angels!’ should give you a good idea of where this novel is heading, as well as the dude on the cover with the vaguely futuristic leather armour and quiver of arrows on his back. (I know he looks like a porn star but forget about that, this was the just pre-punk 1970s. Collar-length hair and stupid moustaches were in.) The US edition (ACE, 1978) has an even better cover, placing our guy on a four-cylinder superbike and brandishing a crossbow with a burning city in the background, anticipating the video covers of early-80s Italian Mad Max II knock-offs like Bronx Warriors and Exterminators of the Year 3000. The bikes in the book are all V-Twins, but why split hairs? The whole post-apocalyptic road warrior thing is working in these graphics, pre-dating the original Mad Max movie by three years.
The events of The Lost Traveller take place two hundred years after Civilisation wiped itself out in a nuclear war in 1993, which no one now knows the cause of. To the neo-medieval survivors, it is known simply as the ‘BLAM’ – very Riddley Walker and ‘A Boy and His Dog’, don’t you think? A prologue presented as an extract from a history book gives us a brief overview, setting the scene. America is now largely a wasteland known as the ‘Dead Lands’ with surviving communities on the East, West and Gulf Coasts. The West Coast society, known simply as the ‘Fief’ was originally established by Californian academics – the ‘Literates’ – and an increasingly erratic US President, who, having been saved by a surviving chapter of Hell’s Angels, established the club as a kind of Cossack-like military auxiliary. The Angels have thrived ever since, retaining their traditions but working for the leaders of the Fief, who in turn keep them supplied with drugs, booze, gas and bikes, their society still running on oil and internal combustion engines, though vehicles no longer have lights. A less progressive community – the Peregrine Fief – has also grown up across the mountains in the Salinas Valley, dominating the oil supply and using the descendants of the Gypsy Jokers MC as muscle. An uneasy alliance exists, though the rival bike clubs still hate each other. There is also a gasoline cartel in the South, linked to the Fiefs by a highway known as the ‘Juice Route’ on which huge trucks convey oil and petrol to the West Coast Fiefs and the insular and mysterious ‘Eastern Seaboard Federation’, all of whom trade minerals, textiles, food, vehicles, guns, manufactured products, and sometimes slaves with the Cartel.
A second prologue then frames the main story. An old man in a battered leather coat begs sanctuary on a wild and freezing night at a homestead to the north of the Fief. Although he pays for his board, the sons of his hosts think it would be easier to just kill him and take all his coin. They then wake up with their father, stapled to a heavy wooden table while the stranger, who now doesn’t seem quite so old, shags their mother in front of the fire. He drugged them during dinner. He’s now flying his Hell’s Angel colours and the family is terrified. He explains that he’s meeting someone here, hands round the beer and proceeds to start telling them a story to pass the time…
The story proper opens at a Spring Fair where the clans gather at the Fief. While its leader, ‘Eliot’ (several characters are named after literary icons – there’s also a Wordsworth and a Hemingway), meets with the Angels’ Pres, ‘Frank III’, the Angel prospect ‘Long Range’ John has his heart broken by ‘Lila’. An Angel’s daughter, Lila is secretly involved with a full Angel known as ‘Belial’, as well as a couple of his mates (Wilson had formally written for Club and Men Only and could not resist a threesome). This is a serious transgression of Angel code, although when Lila gets pregnant her father blames John and almost kills him. Eliot, meanwhile, has a job for Frank. He needs a small team of Angels to head up the Juice Route in secret to collect a scientist defecting from the Eastern Federation who can apparently bring life back to the Dead Lands. Frank assigns Long Range, so called because of his untrained precognitive abilities, his best friend Milt, and Belial, who will smuggle themselves and their bikes through Peregrine territory in an oil tanker, meet a contact at a border town called ‘Harmony’ and then grab the scientist, ‘Professor Sangria’. Long Range and Milt get their colours, and soon enough Belial discovers they know he’s the father of Lila’s child. It’s now not in his best interests for them to survive the mission. The Gypsy Jokers, led by the terrible ‘Bad Hand’, also get wind of the plan, and then things really go to hell. Throughout, the bike riding episodes, of which there are obviously many, are gripping and authentic, as the heroes try desperately to get from one fuel cache to another over rough terrain while being pursued by Gypsy Jokers riding out and Eastern Nazis on two-strokes coming back, with Milt carrying spares in a sidecar. The ‘hogs’ crash and break down, with much suspense generated by the highly skilled mechanics making repairs while their pursuers get ever closer. For any Harley riders out there – myself included – there are some familiar quirks and glitches.
This is, of course, a western, as are most post-apocalyptic narratives, with bikes instead of horses and trucks instead of steam locomotives. There are also frontier towns, outlaws, saloons, brothels, tarts with hearts, and Indians. On this level alone, it is a cracking adventure story, though there is more to it than just that. Long Range has an interesting back story and genuine emotional depth, and while the Angels are romanticised to a certain extent by Wilson, they are equally depicted as sadistic, thick, duplicitous and unpredictable. Neither, as the professor later observes, are they particularly rebellious: ‘Your group’s ethos would seem to be stoical,’ he tells Long Range, ‘But also unexpectedly conservative.’ Long Range has his doubts about being a soldier in Frank’s private army, and his hero’s journey is one of self-discovery, inspired by true love and Native American culture, for which he has an immediate affinity. On the larger stage, in an epic climax, the fascist (and affectedly British) Eastern Federation invade the Fief and Frank and two hundred berserker Angels ride out to meet the column…
Reviewer Andrew Darlington of Eight Miles High sees the influence of Robert Pirsig, Easy Rider, and Mick Farren’s Texts of Festival and the ‘DNA Cowboys’ trilogy. As Wilson has enthusiastically endorsed this review, I guess there’s some truth to this, but to me the major sources here are Roger Zelazny’s Damnation Alley (1969) and Thomas Berger’s picaresque novel Little Big Man (1964, filmed in 1970 by Arthur Penn), the story of a white man raised by the Cheyanne in the second half of the 19th century. The Lakota (Teton Sioux), who feature in Berger’s novel (they fought at Little Big Horn), are the tribe that help and adopt Long Range in The Lost Traveller, and are the only group shown in the novel to be truly noble and in tune with nature. They are therefore doomed a second time, despite the ‘New Age’ that followed the ‘BLAM’ for them, in which they were able to reconstruct their traditional society unhindered. Damnation Alley, meanwhile, was also set after a nuclear war, with most of America devastated while humanity clings on in civilised enclaves in Boston and Los Angeles, separated by a radioactive wasteland of screaming firestorms that make air travel impossible, populated by cannibals, outlaws, and giant mutated insects and rats. When a plague breaks out in Boston, the biker ‘Angel’ and drug/gun runner ‘Hell Tanner’ is offered a pardon if he will take the vaccine overland from LA to the stricken city. As an expert smuggler, Tanner is one of the few men alive to have successfully navigated the wasteland. Damnation Alley became an inferior film in 1977 when its subversive antihero was rewritten as an army officer. (The better version is the 2000AD Judge Dredd homage ‘The Cursed Earth’ by Pat Mills. The novel also inspired the videogame Fallout.) And like Zelazny’s best work, The Lost Traveller comes out of a period of great innovation in literary science fiction, starting in the late-60s in magazines like New Worlds, and the challenging, politicised fantasy of writers like Michael Moorcock, Philip K. Dick, and Brian Aldiss.
Notionally, then, The Lost Traveller owes a lot to Zelazny’s original premise, while the Indian vision quest and the bond between Long Range and ‘Black Horse Rider’ reflect the mentorship of Berger’s protagonist, ‘Jack Crabb’, by the Cheyanne chief ‘Old Lodge Skins’. Metaphysically, Wilson is a lot closer to Berger than Zelazny. Damnation Alley is a great yarn but it’s neither allegorical nor deep. Berger’s novel is more complex and so is Wilson’s. Though it suffers at times from being a first novel, The Lost Traveller is beautifully written, and the overall experience is exhilarating. It also anticipates the (now) well-worn genre of the antisocial loner wandering the postapocalyptic hellscape, in full leathers with signature weapon and a cool ride, in many ways blazing the trail for the seismic Mad Max II. If you’ve a taste for sweaty leather and intimidating vehicles, The Lost Traveller is well worth seeking out, and you can still pick up second-hand copies relatively easily through Music Magpie and World of Books on eBay. Only, perhaps, the idealism of the Lakota mysticism dates it a little now – though eco-warriors may disagree. The libertarian Angels however, and the overarching political allegories of not just the Eastern Federation but also the Fief, which is definitely on a path to neo-liberalism that’ll have no place for Angels, remain as relevant as ever. And when you finally put the book down, I bet you’ll arrive at the same conclusion as I did when I re-read it recently: Why has no one ever made this into a movie?!