My current passion for cool cover art led me to this book while browsing at Book Town Books in Grass Valley.
The pulpy nature of the story is countered by the classy sophistication of the cover art. But what does the art here have to do with anything? The book is about a hardened criminal released from a post-apocalyptic prison so he can drive a cargo of plague vaccine from Los Angeles to Boston. Can you see any connection between that and the book’s cover art?
Damnation Alley contains some darn good writing much to my surprise. I’ve never read Mr. Zelazny before, he’s one of those early science fiction writers who really cranked ’em out back in the day, but he never caught my interest until now. Turns out he can write a good piece of tough guy noir. Take this more-or-less random sample for example. Be warned, this passage contains a brilliant, but graphic sexual metaphor.
He was moving along a clean, hard, wide road, and just then he wanted to travel it forever–to Florida, of the swamps and Spanish moss and citrus groves and fine beaches and the Gulf; and up to the cold, rocky Cape, where everything is gray and brown and the waves break below the lighthouses and the salt burns in your nose and there are graveyards where bones have lain for centuries and you can still read the names they bore, chiseled there into the stones above them; down through the nation where they say the grass is blue; then follow the mighty Missus Hip to the place where she spreads and comes and there’s the Gulf again, full of little islands where the old boosters stashed their loot; and through the shag-topped mountains he’d heard about: the Smokies, Ozarks, Poconos, Catskills; drive through the forest of Shenandoah; park, and take a boat out over Chesapeake Bay; see the big lakes and the place where the water falls, Niagara. To drive forever along the big road, to see everything, to eat the world.
I know the feeling. And this is not the writing I expected to find in a story like this one.
Mr. Zelazny’s hero is a former biker, a devoted Hell’s Angel, called Hell Tanner. He is pardoned from a life-term by the nation of California on the condition that he take the needed serum cross-country to from L.A. to Boston in time to save the city from a plague outbreak. The country in between, ravaged by nuclear war, is now a wasteland full of deadly tornado like winds, mutant predatory animals and small bands of humans just as dangerous and predatory as the animals are.
It’s all very dime-store novel, think Road Warrior, but the book rises above its material much like The Wages of Fear, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s movie about four down-on-their-luck drifters who take the job of hauling two truckloads of nitroglycerin through the mountains of Venezuela to help put out an oil well fire. It’s a great movie that rises above its premise and I think a very apt comparison to Damnation Alley.
Both stories are about a small group of men, social outcasts, essentially forced to take a dangerous road trip in order to escape from their own lives. Here’s the trailer for Wages of Fear.
The movie, while far from a masterpiece, is also much better than I expected. Here’s the trailer.
In the years since I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. I have read several more books by Mr. Zelazny, but nothing as good as this one. I’ve been working my way, slowly, through his ten-book Amber series of fantasy novels. Not as much fun. I think I miss the noir elements I found in Damnation Alley. But, I’ll keep trying.