Roger Zelazny's 1966 This Immortal took a post-apocalyptic human race and put it on trial for future viability—it’s history the evidence in question. Feeling there was more to the idea, three years later he destroyed geo-political conception of the US in another catastrophe story, writing Damnation Alley (1969). The novel the story of another troubled man who must survive its horror, it’s instead his soul at stake, not the world.'
"Hell," said Tanner. "That's my name. I was the seventh kid in our family, and when I was born the nurse held me up and said to my old man, 'What name do you want on the birth certificate?' and Dad said, 'Hell!' and walked away.
Convicted criminal and former leader of an outlaw bike gang, Hell Tanner never had it easy, and at the beginning of Damnation Alley his life doesn’t get any easier. Faced with a classic proposition: go back to jail on trumped up charges or do what the law wants him to, his past running the wilds with his gang comes back to haunt him in a way he never thought it would. One of only a few with the bravery and experience to travel in the nuclear wasteland that divides the US in half, Tanner is forced to traverse the freak zone to get to Boston and deliver a package—a package vital to the survival of the people in the city. A rider having broken through the wasteland from the Boston side, he requests a driver be sent back with an antidote before collapsing and dying: the east coast is being overtaken by a plague. Given a massive armored car with heavy guns and a good luck wish, Tanner and two others set off on a journey none are expected to survive. The rest, as they say, is history.
The story brisk and the action quickly coming and going, Zelazny sends Tanner on a fast-paced ride through hell—a ride accented by Zelazny’s signature noir style. Storms and creatures of the nuclear night haunting the ex-prisoner’s cross-country ride, there is much to enjoy from a genre perspective. There are also more redemptive elements to the story. Though possessing all of the talents so common to a Zelazny heroes (a coffee drinking, chain smoking, world weary man who is quick on his feet and able to throw a good left hook when need arises), Hell Tanner remains, however, somewhat exceptional in the author’s oeuvre. He is, in fact, an anti-hero.
Beyond simple indifference, as is the case with many other Zelazny heroes, Tanner openly treats the world with disdain, occasionally bringing upon it unwarranted violence. Calloused to existence, sometimes even he is the aggressor. This ploy leaves Tanner significant space for development—more so than say Konrad or Sam, and indeed redemption is the theme of the novel. I will leave it to the reader to discover the manner in which Tanner purifies his soul, but suffice at saying Zelazny does it believably, but perhaps not realistically.
In the end, Damnation Alley is solid Zelazny. Openly displaying the soul of a deeply troubled man as he crosses a nuclear wasteland in an armored car only science fiction can dream of, Zelazny plays with the cards until the reader does not know what to think of Hell Tanner. Well paced and featuring some of Zelazny's more lean prose, it’s genre with at least one firm sub-strata of integrity. Given the setting, I can’t help but imagine media like Mad Max, David Brin’s The Postman, Tim Power’s Dinner at Deviant’s Palace, and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road owe some debt of idea-hood to Zelazny, the same archetypes firmly in place in those stories.
(A side note: Damnation Alley was made into a film in 1977 and can be watched for free on youtube here. A piece for Mystery Science Theater 3000 given the, ahem, “special effects”, it oozes cheese save the Landmaster. Like televangelists, it is worth watching as unintentional entertainment, only.)