“Thank you Dr. Strangelove:” Damnation Alley and the American novel

You might remember Roger Zelazny from my Chronicles of Amber post. Here is another thing of his you absolutely have to read: “Damnation Alley.” Not the novel, the novelette. What’s the difference? According to Zelazny, he was talked into “fixing up” his short piece to resell as a novel, and he just wasn’t happy with it. I’ve read both, and the short version is definitely better, with no padding or extraneous stuff. Just amazingness. Now, what am I actually going to talk about, regarding “Damnation Alley?” It’s the purest expression of American SF.

Say what again? Of course, the statement above depends entirely on how you define “American.” What I’m actually referring to is that “Damnation Alley” is, hilariously, an extension into SF of the American novel of the road – the travel narrative rewritten in American terms, going not to foreign places but to all the disparate parts of America. See Hunter S. Thompson and the Beats (well, the first handful), as well as movies such as Easy Rider. Even Alton Brown got in on the act, doing two series of food shows where he traveled the country, once east to west and once north to south. Stephen Fry, a British actor, even did it, driving to all fifty states for a tv series about America. It’s what Americans do, apparently. We don’t go on European tours any more, we just drive the interstates.

“Damnation Alley” is exactly that, and quintessentially American in particular and peculiar ways. So the basic set-up is that atomic war ravaged the world, turning it into a weird fantasy land with giant iguanas and fucked up weather. Out on the west coast no one has ever seen it rain without huge rocks and animals falling from the sky. At one point the main character passes a dead shark out in the Midwest, picked up by the wind and dropped out there (yup, book written in the 60s-70s; that’s right, Sharknado, Zelazny did it first). The main character is Hell Tanner (his actual name, not a nickname), badass motorbike thug and former mailman in prison forever who is released because he’s the best driver in the nation of California – a messenger from Boston managed to make it through the hellish, atomically devastated middle part of America with a message that a plague is killing Boston, the other main cluster of humans still alive on the continent. California has plenty of the antidote, but shipping it by sea will take too long. So Hell Tanner is offered a pardon if he’ll be one of the drivers to take it through the alley.

Yes, this might sound familiar. I’m convinced the guys who made Escape from New York read this thing before they started working.

Along his way Hell Tanner runs into all sorts of things, only some of them alive: the weather itself is one of the forces he must deal with. He is startled, afraid, and then amazed by simple rain, as he’s never seen it before. There are biker gangs in the less radioactive areas acting like Mad Max villains, and that’s what eventually becomes the biggest problem Hell has to deal with.

One has to wonder if the phrase “hell for leather” crossed Zelazny’s mind the entire time he was working on this.

So why is this so “American?” Or at least, why do I want to talk about it that way? Well, I already pointed out the “touring America” aspect. It’s a ruined, destroyed America, but the method of exploration is similar, if the sights seen aren’t. Hell is the only person from the West Coast that’s ever seen the Missus Hip, and even he didn’t dare cross it, as the bridges were chock full of ruined automobiles. It’s not beautiful, it’s in the way.

But Hell also fits that peculiarly American version of Byronism to some extent. He hates anything that imposes rules. He longs for the before-times, because he’d be able to drive anywhere, but really he could only survive in the post-apocalypse, because there wouldn’t have been enough empty space for him beforehand. Hell up and leaves anything that’s normal and consistent because he just can’t handle it. I mean, everything from the hardboiled detectives to the cowboys to the father on Little House on the Prairie do this shit, up and leave when things are just starting to get regular.

And of course the post-nuclear wasteland is a good old fashioned American literature trope at this point. But more than all that, the writing’s style and Hell’s attitude seem, to me, particularly American. Hell uses the flamethrower on his vehicle to burn down an enormous thorn plant that bars the way, early in the novel. Two other cars sit idling behind him. He sets the thing afire, notices the fire begins to leap and stretch for miles in both directions, and goes to sleep. He’s only woken up when the other cars honk at him. He doesn’t care to look at the startling spectacle of nature, nature gone awry, or nature coming back under control of humankind (through fire, glorious fire). He sleeps, because that’s practical. That the other cars honk at him would seem to hint that the other drivers sit and watch – a weakness, presumably, as they’re all killed by the trip, one by a tornado in a scene heavily underlined by the book. Hell doesn’t fall prey to nature, but others do. People die, the world throws enormous snakes a mile long at him, he eats a fucking sandwich. That kind of blasé attitude is something a significant portion of American culture aspires to – more in the 60s and 70s than now. It’s the rugged cowboy. Except in Hell’s case his life is awful, the world is awful, there’s almost no hope, everyone hates him, and he hates everyone. That, in fact, sums up the prerequisites for being that blasé. Who wants to live like that? It seems to me like the novel’s criticizing that sort of ideal.

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