The New York Times book review follows.
NEW YORK TIMES – TRAVEL BOOKSHELF
Nothing Can Go Wrong By Capt. John H. Kilpack with John D. MacDonald. 305 pages. Harper and Row. $15.95.
Here is a vacation post card, a valentine and a lament. Captain Kilpack was the skipper of the S. S. Mariposa when, in May 1977, it undertook one of its last long cruises – in this case a 77-day voyage from San Francisco to Leningrad and back again, with two transits of the Panama Canal and a dozen stops in between. Mr. MacDonald, best known as the author of a series of detective stories that always have a color word in the title, was a passenger on that trip. Together, they have produced a story of the voyage that is amusing and eventually touching.
Each man speaks – or writes – in his own voice. In general, Mr. MacDonald, a veteran of many cruises, provides a straightforward narrative of the voyage, while Captain Kilpack adds an apposite yarn or two. The arrangement is less schizophrenic than it might be; for clarity’s sake, Captain Kilpack’s words are set in italics.
The captain is colloquial and funny, with a nice talent for dry hyperbole. He is also, as his accounts of dealing with amok passengers and officious port authorities reveal, a shrewd psychologist. He is above all a serious seaman, concerned and deft when forced to cope with such problems as sailing, against his own better judgment, from the Azores to Panama when the ship had lost most of its anchor and half its rudder.
Mr. MacDonald is crotchety. He is as impatient with officialdom as is Captain Kilpack. He is an ardent Francophobe, and he does not like the Swedes, or at any rate those of them who live in Stockholm, much better. But he is an acute observer of life aboard ship – he and his wife, Dorothy, may keep pretty much to themselves, but they both have their eyes and ears wide open – and gives good, concise information about what makes the ship work, both mechanically and socially.
Yet there is an elegiac tone to all this. Both passengers and crew know that this cruise will almost certainly be one of the last for the Mariposa. She and her sister ship, the Monterey, are the only remaining liners to sail under the American flag; should Congress not agree to extend their periods of subsidization so that they can compete economically with foreign-flag vessels, both are doomed. Even Captain Kilpack’s high spirits give way to something close to bitterness directed against the ships’ owners, the Pacific Far East Line, who, he rightly suspects, really do not much care about keeping the ships in operation. If he feels sold out, he has been – in a sort of postlude, we learn that when hearings on proposed legislation to save the ships were held shortly after the end of the Mariposa’s cruise, no one from the Pacific Far East Line bothered to attend.
”Nothing Can Go Wrong” takes its title from the assurances given the captain by the shipping company whenever anything does.