Saturday, March 26, 2011

Damnation Alley by Roger Zelazny

Damnation Alley
By Roger Zelazny
Copyright 1968

In an undefined time, much of the United States has been decimated my nuclear war. Civilization exists on the west coast and in parts of the eastern United States. What lies between is radioactive waste. That radioactive wasteland is beset by storms of rain, rocks, and cyclones. It is this stretch of land from Nevada to Massachusetts that Hell Tanner must cross.

Hell Tanner, aptly named, is an outlaw. The leader of a biker gang that terrorizes the Barbary Coast of California, he is finally arrested at a serendipitous time. Shortly after his arrest, the forces of the law wipe out his gang.

Hell Tanner is also one hell of a driver and his services are needed by what’s left of American civilization. A man has crossed the vast wasteland of middle America known as Damnation Alley to tell the nation of California that the nation of Boston is being attacked by a plague. The only known serum for the plague is in California. It must get through to Boston if that half of the continent is going to survive.

Nuclear war has dramatically altered the climate and weather patterns of the world. Where aircraft once flew routinely, there are constant winds of hundreds of miles per hour, carrying in them sand, rocks, boulders, and other debris, making flight impossible. The only way to travel in this post-nuclear world is by ground transportation.

Tanner is offered a full pardon for all of the crimes and debauchery he has committed in a life dedicated to crime and debauchery. In exchange for this pardon, he will traverse Damnation Alley with the vaccine and deliver it safely to Boston. With his gang wiped out and facing a life of imprisonment, he readily agrees.

Three R.V. type vehicles set out east from Los Angeles to make the delivery to Boston. These are not your ordinary recreational vehicles. They run on an octet of tires. They are equipped with flame throwers, 50 millimeter guns, grenade launchers, and heavy cannons with which to do battle with the giant bats, gila monsters, and other mutant creatures that inhabit Damnation Alley.

The three vehicles, each manned with two man crews, sets out from California. It’s not long before one is lost in a storm. The other simply disappears later, leaving Tanner and his partner, Greg, to make the trek alone.

They arrive in an oasis in the waste near what was Salt Lake City. There, they make repairs, enjoy a meal, and meet the president of Salt Lake City. They learn that the man who delivered the message from Boston had passed that way also and had come across the country on the ruins of U.S. 40. Tanner decides to take that route.

As they near the middle of country in the vicinity of St. Louis, Greg becomes increasingly agitated and anxious. They have reached the point where there will soon be no option of return. Their craft has weathered the showers of rocks and boulders that fall from the pink, murky, sky. They have defeated or avoided the monsters that haunt the land. But Greg can’t deal with crossing the “Mighty Missus Hip” and being left without the option of turning back. Tanner is forced to beat him into unconsciousness and bind him. Tanner is now left alone to drive the second half of Damnation Alley.

The missiles of the enemy rained down upon the large cities in the Midwest and Tanner assiduously avoids St. Louis and Dayton. Large craters occasionally pock the landscape, revealing ground zero of the missiles as they hit terra firma. He is forced to go miles out of his way to avoid these craters, using precious fuel.

For my friends who grew up in southeastern Ohio, it is the bridge that spans the Ohio River from Belpre, OH to Parkersburg, WV, that Tanner utilizes to cross over the Ohio. I wonder if he paid the toll. . .

Tanner is caught in a particularly bad storm near Albany, New York and decides to wait it out. When the storm is over, he finds that his vehicle is stuck in mud. Fortunately, he encounters a farmer who offers to help him free up the vehicle. Tanner, worried about Greg who has been unconscious for several days, asks if there is medical help available. The farmer and his sons transport Tanner and Greg to a small town nearby where they live. There, Tanner the outlaw gangster and killer, enjoys a few days of genuine Midwestern hospitality.

Greg is left in the care of a country doctor who tells Tanner he’s given Greg a pretty severe concussion and possibly a skull fracture. Tanner is left to go it alone. He is warned the road between Albany and Boston is terrorized by various gangs and marauders who prey on those fleeing the plague stricken Boston. Tanner, with his vehicle free of the muck that held it, sets off on the last leg of Damnation Alley to deliver the vaccine and earn his pardon.

It’s not long before a gang of motorcyclists attacks him, not realizing the mighty firepower contained within the post apocalyptic R.V. With a couple grenades and strafes of machine gun fire, he wipes out the gang. He stops to survey the carnage and notices that one is left alive. Upon closer inspection, he finds out that it is a woman who has survived his barrage. Apparently as bereft of human feeling and loyalty as Hell Tanner himself, she dispassionately leaves behind her dead comrades and joins Tanner on the last leg of his journey.

Tanner finds that he has missed human company since leaving his partner behind in the small town outside of Albany. He and Cornelia pass the time amiably; two outlaw free spirits miscast as saviors of the eastern United States. For the first time in his life, Tanner feels the dim stirrings of love.

Less than 100 miles outside of Boston, Tanner and Cornelia are pursued by a gang of more than 100 well armed motorcyclists who are adept at shooting out the tires of Tanners vehicle. Tanner unleashes the full firepower of the vast weaponry at his disposal. Despite all the weaponry he unloads on them, they still persist and manage to deflate several of his tires. They soon run into a storm that drops upon them several large boulders, damaging the armor on their vehicle. Low on fuel, their ammunition spent, and their vehicle unable to advance, they abandon it and head east on motorcycles with the carton carrying the vaccine strapped to Tanner’s bike.

Just 50 miles outside of Boston, the roads begin to improve. They pass several vehicles carrying families fleeing Boston, heading west to anywhere where there was not plague. As they are cruising the highway toward Boston, a single sniper shot rings out and Cordelia falls dead with a gunshot to the chest. Tanner returns fire with a grenade and blows up their assailant. He pauses to bury Cordelia the best he can with his bare hands. He parks her bike atop her makeshift grave and inscribes in the paint on the gas tank, Her name was Cordelia. I don’t know how old she was or where she came from, but she was Hell Tanner’s girl and I loved her.

Here, Zelazny pauses in his narrative to ask his reader to imagine setting without plot or characters. He describes the altered geological processes of the earth that lift water, fish, coral, rocks and debris from the surface of the earth and transport them high into the air, to be dropped on Damnation Alley. As the story draws to its climax, we learn what makes Damnation Alley the most dangerous place in the world.

Just a few miles outside of Boston, Tanner is met by another gang. Outgunned and out manned, Tanner is taken. His bike is driven by a gang member approximately half a mile up the road and parked. As well armed men line the road waiting for him, Tanner is ordered to try to get his bike.

But Tanner has a few tricks left. He tosses two grenades that take out a bulk of the gang lining the road. But a few men (quite pissed now) remain, and they put a bullet into him. As he lies bleeding in the road, they torment him by riding circles around him, running over his hands and kicking at him. As one of the bikes passes him, a foot peg catches his clothing and starts to drag him along the street. Bereft of firearms and grenades, he has but a boot knife and a lighter with which to fight for his life. He uses the dagger to puncture a hole in the gas tank of the bike and the lighter to set afire the fuel that flows from it, killing his assailant.

Now wounded by a bullet and burned from the conflagration of the burning bike, a beaten and battered Tanner tries to traverse the last ten miles of road that lie between him and Boston. He is delirious with pain and exhaustion. He drives for a little while and finally pulls off to the side and falls in a heap of exhaustion.

As he sleeps, he dreams of a priest, who has come from Albany to pray for the salvation of Albany. He asks to pray for Hell Tanner, if he will only reveal his name. Tanner will not. Tanner says he drives. He drives even though he is afraid. He drives because he has become part of his machine. He drives not for the people of Boston. He will not tell the priest his name. The priest tells him he cannot pray for him if he knows not his name.

Tanner awakens from his dream disoriented, recalling the horrible events of his cross country odyssey through Damnation Alley. Weakened by his wound and the physical and mental demands of his journey, he pushes the bike to the road for the final push toward Boston.

He finally arrives on the outskirts of Boston and it occurs to him he has no idea where he is supposed to take the vaccine once he gets there. The city appears all but deserted with just a few buildings lit. He stops his bike and attempts to enter one. A bullet strikes the building, just missing him and police officers warn him not to move and tell him he is under arrest for looting. He puts his hands up as instructed. But before doing so, he pulls the pin on his remaining grenade. The cops realize that they can’t shoot him or he will blow them up. He presents his pardon papers and shows them the vaccine. His hand is weakening and it is becoming increasingly difficult for him to hold the trigger of the grenade.

The cops toss him into the car and rush him toward the hospital. As they cross the River Charles, Tanner tosses his last grenade which explodes harmlessly in the water below. He arrives and delivers the vaccine. His pardon is final and complete.

The book closes with a statue of Hell Tanner erected in Boston Common. Soon after it is placed, it is vandalized and there is little doubt as to who has committed the defacing act. An anti-hero must remain and anti-hero. Tanner sets out for parts unknown, leaving no forwarding address. The majestic statue of Hell Tanner astride a great Harley Davidson stands on Boston Common to present hope for posterity, subjected to the indignities of a climate made inhospitable by humankind’s inhumanity.

Damnation Alley might best be termed bubblegum science fiction. The creatures that inhabit Damnation Alley are straight out of B-movie material. The story is bereft of subplots. Hell Tanner is not a man given to flights of introspection. He has no character arc. Other than a few days of love for a woman whom he did not take the time to learn anything about, Tanner remained a passionless person, driven only by his desire to be free and his desire to drive.

Zelazny’s prose is sparse. Except for the description of the earth’s new climate and geological changes and the dream sequence with the priest, Zelazny is not given to rhetorical fancy. Except for a few, seemingly randomly placed vignettes that describe events in crisis panicked Boston, the story is straight forward with no subplots. The characters are unrefined and have just enough backstory and development to tell the story.

One of the axioms of fictional writing is that your main character must go through some sort of change to make a story successful – what professional writers of books and screenplays call the character arc. Tanner has no character arc. He leaves Boston the same man he was when he left California. One can’t help but admire a writer who breaks the fundamental rules of the craft and successfully tells an interesting tale.

Like bubblegum, the tale was sweet and pleasurable to sink your teeth into. The book was fun to read. With a plot that is well paced and an anti-hero that is likable, yet despicable, Damnation Alley is worthy of being mentioned with some of the better works of science fiction. One can't help but think that perhaps the highly regarded Mad Max trilogy was not inspired somewhat by Zelazny's tale.

The novel was made into a movie starring Jan-Michael Vincent. It is only loosely based on Zelazny’s tale. Most fans of science fiction cinema seem to despise it. I saw it when it first came out in 1977 when I was just 11 years old and I liked it. I saw it a second time just a few years ago and I liked it again. I would not call it a great movie, but I have seen movies deemed great by critics and science fiction aficionados That I’ve enjoyed less.

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