Damnation Alley is probably not Roger Zelazny's most widely read novel. Among SF/F readers Zelazny's classic Hugo-winning novels This Immortal (previously titled . . . And Call Me Conrad) and Lord of Light are more widely read. Later Zelazny became known for his extremely popular Amber series. Although highly original and well-crafted, the Amber novels didn't receive as much critical acclaim as Zelazny's earlier work, although they did garner him one Locus Award (for The Trumps of Doom.
Zelazny may not be a household name among non-SF readers, but the movie-going public may be familiar with the 1977 film version of Zelazny's slim novel Damnation Alley (starring Jan-Michael Vincent of "A-Team" fame). But how many SF/F fans have actually read the book? It's better than the film, a quick read, and a worthy addition to Zelazny's distinctive and enjoyable corpus of fiction. It's also an important entry on any list of post-apocalyptic fiction. The science isn't particularly robust (not unusual for Zelazny), and the book contains elements which could be easily criticized as cliche. But some of the post-apocalyptic "cliches" probably originated with Zelazny's work, and were popularized by the film.
Damnation Alley is loosely based on the true story of Balto, the wolf-dog hybrid which rescued an Arctic town by delivering medicine during impassable winter weather. Zelazny's protagonist is Hell Tanner. (Yes, Hell is the actual name on his birth certificate, according to the story he seems fond of telling.) Like Balto in the book and animated feature, Tanner is that he is at odds with society. He is an orphan, youngest of seven children, who grew up not long after a devastating nuclear war changed the Earth and wiped out most people in America. The only remaining major population centers are Southern California and Boston.
Tanner describes being raised by whatever relatives would put up with him for a while. Growing up without parents in post-nuclear California he apparently developed little or no spiritual and ethical foundations, and ended up joining motorcycle gangs, living as a highway robber, and eventually becoming a rapist and a murderer. When civil society asserted itself in California, authorities from the fledgling nation of California raided the strongholds of the motorcycle gangs and wiped them out. Tanner was in jail at the time of the raids, and so, with his gang wiped out, he considered himself once again alone. He called himself the "last Hell's Angel" and was certain there was no place for him in society.
Then a driver dying from radiation poisoning arrived, bringing word that the people of Boston were dying from a plague. The nation of California had previously faced the same plague, and had supplies of the antibody serum which could successfully treat it. The problem would be getting the medicine from California to Boston. The nuclear war had somehow tilted the Earth off its access enough that the skies have been made impassable for aircraft. Jetstreams in the air constantly sweep up material from high places and drop it onto the ground in potentially deadly storms.
The only remaining routes are over land and on sea. The sea voyage would take too long to get to Boston. Going over land is possible, but dangerous. Most of the country between California and Boston is known as the "Alley." It is heavily irradiated in many areas, and occupied by monstrous mutated animals or barbaric gangs in other places.
Tanner is recruited to be one of six drivers given the task of transporting the medicine to Boston. He is offered a full pardon by the state of California if he makes it to Boston. The government knows he's dangerous, but knows the route to Boston is so dangerous that only the best drivers could possibly survive.
That's the back story, all of which is seamlessly and clearly revealed early in the novel. The narrative of the novel actually begins as Tanner tries to escape after first agreeing to be a driver on the rescue mission. He is recaptured and convinced by the authorities that they'll kill him or leave him to rot in jail for the rest of his life if he doesn't accept the mission.
Clearly Tanner is a man with extreme character defects, a man who is miserable and who makes other people miserable. But Zelazny's character is a well-written, compelling, three-dimensional anti-hero. Even early in the novel, there are signs of redemptive qualities within him. For example, when he finds out his own brother has volunteered to be one of the driver, he punches his brother so hard that the young man must be confined to bed and can't make the run. Tanner figures a few broken ribs are better than getting killed while running the Alley -- something he's fairly certain is a suicide mission. This mix of altruistic motives (which he denies when they are pointed out to him) and violent, confrontational methods makes Tanner a complex and often surprising character to follow on his cross-country trek.
One of the novel's most interesting scenes takes place in Salt Lake City, Utah, which is the only major surviving remnant of civilization between California and Boston. The Mormon community there seems in many ways more friendly and livable than even the East and West Coast pockets of civilization. While stopping for refueling and repairs, Tanner is even visited by "the President" of Salt Lake, a kind but older gentleman who is apparently both the secular head of state in the region and the Mormon spiritual leader.
The novel points out that one of the reasons California chose Tanner for the trip was that he had driven shipments of candy to the Mormons in Salt Lake, so he was one of the few people familiar with at least part of the route to Boston. With Tanner's last name, family size, and ties to Salt Lake, it seems likely that Zelazny intended the character as an ethnic Mormon, although this fact isn't stated explicitly in the novel. Tanner's antisocial Hell's Angel persona combines with his Mormon background and innate heroism to make for a particularly ironic and memorable character.
Tanner's trip is wrought with violence and danger, but also humor and pathos. Damnation Alley is far more than simply a pulp-fiction action yarn because along with an often pulse-pounding road trip, the reader is also treated to Tanner's fascinating but very believable inner journey. Zelazny's novel succeeds in steering clear of hackneyed character development cliches and tiresome dramatic turnarounds. Instead, the changes within Tanner are subtle and organic.
The novel also sports some interesting and successful literary experiments by Zelazny, such as preacher's sermon in Boston in which every seventh word is drowned out by the loud clanging of bells, and the description of Tanner's spiritual/mystic experience in Salt Lake City, in the junkyard behind the auto repair shop.
This novel may not be for everyone. It is probably inappropriate for some classrooms, although it has much less potentially objectionable material than some contemporary science fiction. Zelazny never tried to score points simply by shocking readers with excessivess. Other than Hell Tanner's first name, the language is refreshingly inoffensive. Not surprisingly, Tanner is a hard-drinking and chain-smoking individual, although he's quite sober while driving (which is most of the novel). The violence is rarely graphic, and in any case, mostly involves mutant animals such as giant bats and spiders. Two incidents of sexuality are moderately explicit, but fairly brief. There is no apparent ethnic, racial, religious, etc. prejudice. The casual and somewhat secondary science may not appeal to "hard science fiction" fans.
Despite being the basis for a movie which has not aged well (and may never have been of particular artistic merit), Damnation Novel is a novel well worth reading.