(Jack Gaughan’s cover for the 1969 edition)
As I read Roger Zelazny’s post-apocalyptical adventure Damnation Alley (1969), the relentless throbbing of Hawkwind’s 1977 song inspired by the novel along with cringeworthy lines of dialogue from the 1977 film version kept interjecting themselves into my reading experience.
First, a snippet from the song….
I’ve got the serum and I’m going to take it
All the way to Boston, oh I’ve got to get through
The going won’t be easy, but I’m going to make it
It’s the only thing that I’m cut out to do
Ride the post-atomic radioactive trash
The sky’s on fire from the nuclear flash
Driving through the burning hoop of doom,
In an eight wheeled anti-radiation tomb
Thank you Dr. Strangelove for going doolally,
and leaving me the heritage of Damnation Alley […].
Absent from Hawkwind’s interpretation that focuses on the barebones plot of the novel–an adventure trek in a decked-out vehicle with a lot of guns across the wasteland that is America in order to deliver a serum to cure a plague in Boston–is Zelazny’s non-tradition (understatement) protagonist: Hell Tanner. Before Hell sets out on his quest, California’s Secretary of Traffic lays out his manifest and manifold flaws:
“I just want to tell you that I think you are the lowest, most reprehensible human being I have ever encountered. You have killed men and raped women. You once gouged out a man’s eyes, just for fun. You’ve been indicted twice for pushing dope, and three times as a pimp. You’re a drunk and a degenerate, and I don’t think you’ve had a bath since the day you were born. You and your hoodlums terrorized decent people when they were trying to pull their lives after the war. You stole from them and you assaulted them, and you extorted money and the necessaries of life with the threat of physical violence. I wish you had died in the Big Raid that night, like all the rest of them. You are not a human being, except from a biological standpoint.” (19)
And the Secretary of Traffic is right on the money. I should also add that Tanner pines for his Nazi biker insignia and wields an SS dagger. Over the course of the novel Zelazny hints and finally demonstrates Hell’s remaining shreds of humanity–although the most direct thing Hell will say is that he wants to help his fellow humans because he likes action. All of which is a morally nebulous mash….
Brief Plot Summary
L.A., the capital of the Nation of California, receives word from a dying driver who braved the post-apocalyptical expanse that Boston has been ravaged by a plague. The plague was stopped in L.A. due to a serum (108). The President of California authorizes the best driver alive, who happens to be a hardened criminal, Hell Tanner released from prison and pardoned if he delivers the serum (accompanied by other drivers who are tasked with shooting him if he disobeys) to Boston. The vehicles are described in great length:
The “car” that he drove had eight heavily treaded tires and was thirty-two feet in length. It mounted eight fifty-caliber automatic guns and four grenade-throwers. It carried thirty armor-piercing rockets which could be discharged straight ahead or at any elevation up to forty degrees from the plane. Each of the four sides, as well as the roof of the vehicle, housed flamethrowers. Razor-sharp “wings” of tempered steel […]. (21)”
…ad nauseam. You get the idea.
Cue: mutated Gila monsters, bats, dust storms, more bats, random tanks, an entire menagerie of menacing and easily dispatched animal and human challenges (burn them, shoot them with bullets, drive over them, shoot rockets at them)…. Along the way Hell discovers that he does care about saving the world. Sigh.
Is the novel vintage Zelazny? Not by a long shot. Is it worth a few fun hours of repetitive adventure? I thought so. Maybe? Zelazny does attempt to pad out his original novella with a series of post-apocalyptical vignettes, of varying success, depicting daily life in a wasteland: scenes of violence, preachers, newspapermen, etc.
As indicated by Hell’s name and that he’s the last of the Hells Angels, the novel dangles shreds of religious imagery and more experimental almost cosmic moments that reflect on tropes and plots and the roles characters (and by reflection, us) play. The most intriguing idea is Hell’s own childhood vision of his desire to care for the world which he abandoned long ago: the “keeper of the machine” (129). But, unless I miscounted, Zelazny mentions this concept only twice. All of these potentially fascinating ideas are clumped at the end and not seriously integrated into the story. As the dust settled and Hawkwind’s song droned on and on, I found myself agreeing with Barry N. Malzberg’s assessment: “a mechanical, simply transposed action-adventure story written, in my view, at the bottom of the man’s talent” (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May, 1970).
Recommended for fans of SF adventures in post-apocalyptical landscapes only. Fans of Zelazny’s more mature works like The Dream Master (1966), Isle of the Dead (1969), Lord of Light (1967), This Immortal (1966), etc. beware…. I suspect the level of reflection and craft in Damnation Alley (1969) is more on par with the later more ramshackle/rushed volumes in his Chronicles of Amber sequence.
For more book reviews consult the INDEX
(Alan Gutierrez’s cover for the 1984 edition)
(Karel Thole’s cover for the 1972 German edition)
(Paul Lehr’s cover for the 1970 edition)
(Gordon C. Davies’ cover for the 1973 edition)
(Chris Foss’ cover for the 1990 edition)
(Eddie Jones’ cover for the 1974 edition)
(Cover for the 1978 edition)
Connor Freff Cochran’s cover for the 1979 edition)