Gollancz, 2003 (reprint, orig. 1969)
I am an unabashed fan of Zelazny’s Amber books, yes I even love the second series starring Merlin, but other than Amber I am far too under-read when it comes to Zelany’s body of work. Last year, when tracking down post-apocalyptic novels to read I came across Zelazny’s Damnation Alley, purchased a used copy, then promptly forgot about it on a bookshelf. I noticed the bright yellow spine of the Gollancz SF paperback and decided finally give it a go.
Damnation Alley is a post-apocalyptic action novel where convicted Hell’s Angel member Hell Tanner is offered a pardon in return for running the titular Damnation Alley. Loaded up in an armed and armored car Hell has to head from L.A. to Boston to deliver a cargo of antiserum. Crossing the entire country while skirting radioactive craters and dealing with horridly mutated monstrosities that populate the former United States.
Damnation Alley is not a meditative novel. While Zelazny offers hints of what happened to the country (and the world) the gist of the explanation is simply “war.” Damnation Alley is about as over the top as they come and the novel never flinches at the ridiculous. Giant Gila Monsters, Giant Bats, Giant Spiders, mentioned though never seen killer butterflies, and tornado dodging covers just about all the notes of craziness you’ll see over the course of this journey; typically only when briefly illuminated by a muzzle flash or flamethrower. Hell Tanner is a mean son of a bitch with some noble qualities, a quintessential anti-hero, though his good deeds never seem to quite make up for his ornery nature and past atrocities.
Zelazny does offer some interesting notes of introspection on Tanner’s part; notably a sort of stream-of-consciousness scene early during the start of the journey, and a later injury induced delirium scene at novels end that allow for some fascinating imagery that illuminate a theme of redemption that is belied by the fact that Tanner never really changes. In fact there is a nice little conversation between Tanner and a scientist quite to this effect in high Tanner is accused of contradicting the idea of Batesian mimicry; he is a man that refuses to adapt. Indeed, despite his few good deeds Tanner’s refusal to change remains an integral part of the novel right up to and through the final scene.
While reading Damnation Alley you might be struck by the idea that this would make a great movie. This is apparently was the thought in 1977 when the book was made into a film starring Jan-Michael Vincent as Tanner. The movie was, apparently, a total bust that takes all the over-the-top elements of character and action and creates a watered down mess. Honestly, I think it’s time someone tried again. Given that Machete (itself spawned from the Grindhouse team-up between Robert Rodriquez and Quentin Tarantino) just opened at #3 at the US box office and the recent action-fest that was the Expendables I think U.S. audiences are at least a ready for a more faithful adaptation of an over-the-top Grindhouse worthy post-apocalyptic adventure. Well, I am, so if Hollywood reads this: get to work!
While almost universally agreed as numbering among Zelazny’s lesser (if not least) works Damnation Alley is still an entertaining romp that I strongly recommend taking for a spin. It’s a fast paced read not overly concerned with character development and world building but one that still manages to tell a ripping yarn that will still have you grinning as you ride shotgun with Hell (note: Ride shotgun with Hell would be a great tagline for the non-existent new movie). Damnation Alley is the flip side of the science fiction coin standing in stark contrast to the open wonder and questing nature of a title like Rendezvous With Rama; a book that uses its fantastical elements for one goal: fun.