Thursday, 9 September 2010

Damnation Alley by Roger Zelazny

I have to confess that once again I’m allowing my reading choice to be dictated by listening to my old Hawkwind records, in this case the song of the same name from their 1977 album Quark, Strangeness & Charm. A post-atomic apocalypse road trip from LA to Boston to deliver a serum to a dying city, Damnation Alley is pretty pulpy stuff, both on vinyl and in paperback.

Hell Tanner is the last of the Angels, a motorcycle outlaw whose gang has been destroyed by the Nation of California, one of three cities left in North America after a catastrophic nuclear war. He’s given an ultimatum; either spend the rest of his life behind bars or help drive medicine to bubonic plague ridden Boston through the nightmare of Damnation Alley, a deadly landscape spanning America, full of rock storms, tornadoes, giant snakes and vampire bats and Gila monsters the size of barns.

Damnation Alley is a book about redemption and Tanner is no hero at the start. As the man releasing him at the beginning of the book puts it:

You’re a drunk and a degenerate, and I don’t think you’ve had a bath since the day you were born... You are not a human being, except from a biological standpoint.

Tanner’s ride is exhilarating stuff; he is part of a convoy of eight-wheeled cars, armed with flame throwers, rockets, grenades and heavy machine guns. The empty wastes of the Mid-West see him pass through the empty remains of Kansas City and St Louis, crossing the mighty Missus Hip on a creaking bridge cluttered with broken down cars. By the time he’s made it to what used to be the state of New York, he’s in need of refreshment:

He drew up in front of a flickering red sign that said: “Bar and Grill”, parked, and entered. It was small, and there was jukebox music playing, tunes he’d never heard before, and the lighting was poor, and there was sawdust on the floor. He sat down at the bar and pushed the Magnum way down behind his belt so that it didn’t show... When the man in white apron approached, he said: “Give me a shot and a beer and a ham sandwich.”

It’s not over yet. He still has to get to Boston and he quickly tangles with a motorcycle gang. Killing all but one, he picks up the survivor who is a chick and who he quickly takes a shine to. Especially when it turns out she has a bottle of hooch on her:

“I can buy you a drink.” “What do you mean?” She drew a plastic flask from the right side pocket of her jacket. She uncapped it and passed it to him. “Here.” He took a mouthful and gulped it, coughed, took a second, then handed it back. “Great! You’re a woman of unsuspected potential and I like that. Thanks.”

Too bad she doesn’t make it to Boston with Tanner, but it’s a rough world out there in the post-apocalypse.

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