The plot of Gallion’s Reach—which was published by Harper & Brothers Publishing in New York in 1927—is so thin it would surely be, in any other novelist’s hands, threadbare. Initially, the book seems to propose a Rider Haggard-Jack London-ish bravado in its story about the justifiable murder by its hero, James Colet, of his employer in a shipping office in the docklands of London (in an area called Gallions Reach).
Fleeing the scene of his accidental dispatching of his boss, Colet decides—on p. 65—to take to the sea. Here is his approach, at night, to the docked vessel that will carry him beyond the reach of the law: “He listened rigidly. He could hear the plunging of a propeller. He made a guess. A red light? Then she was going east. She was bound outwards. He crossed over and walked down that slit in the dark till he felt only outer space was before him. There were remote points of light in a void. He stopped and fumbled with his hand. Yes, this was the edge of his world.”
Clearly we are somewhere beyond Haggard and London (as well as C.S. Forester, Nicholas Monsarrat and Patrick O’Brian, for that matter) and closer to Conrad or Melville territory. Colet’s discussion with the ship’s captain takes up about twenty pages: “Playing with words!” suggested the Altair’s master, “taking soundings with words, and finding no bottom?”
The plot—which involves the Altair’s being lost in a storm, the hero’s being rescued and taken aboard a larger liner, about his meeting a sharp businessman explorer who wants company on a search for tin in the jungle of Malaysia and his befriending of an ancient anthropologist he meets there. That’s it. The plot is nothing. It’s just a clotheshorse upon which to drape garments of virtuoso language. It really is about taking soundings with words and finding no bottom.
Without Tomlinson’s skill, without his brilliance, Gallions Reach would no doubt be leaden and prolix. As it is—for Tomlinson is a truly great writer—the book is continually, endlessly intoxicating.
I’d like to place before you some dazzling citations from Tomlinson to demonstrate its quality, but I’d end by writing out the whole book. Here is Tomlinson—this will have to suffice—on the curious instability of the steamer on which Colet is a passenger: “There was no sound, except a suggestion that the night outside was a tide pouring forever between the stars; but there was a tremor in the cabin, as of a dance of all its atoms, and a profound murmuring, which might have been the humming of an asteroid asleep with the speed of its rotation in space. An open book on a table beside the bunk, responsive to the dance of the atoms, was now projecting over the edge, and was on the point of toppling over….” (p. 88).
Fired with enthusiasm for Gallioms Reach, I’ve now purchased two more Tomlinsons: All Our Yesterdays and The Snows of Helicon. I’ll probably be writing about them soon.