Hell Tanner's the baddest bad ass left in what's left of the decimated F.U.S.A., the Former United States of America. Roger Zelazny really socks it to the F.U.S.A. as he satirically skewers this arguably great (and nearly late) nation.
The nation of California, where the action begins in Roger Zelazny's classic postapocalyptic road trip romp through man made Hell, has recruited Hell, commuting his life sentence, if he can successfully navigate Damnation Alley, after having received some terrible news from the Republic of Boston that the black plague has struck! As if post-nuclear holocaust weren't bad enough, in marches the dratted black plague. Rats!
A dehumanized remnant out of Los Angeles, perhaps 25,000 strong (or weak, rather -- Roger Zelazny never gives us the exact figures) wants to help, of course, as the plague, if not eradicated, just might soon eradicate their city of ex-Angels too. But what can they do, now that Damnation Alley stands in their way? Enter Hell Tanner and his mission improbable ...
Running Damnation Alley is akin to sunbathing beside exposed fuel rods inside a nuclear reactor. Not a great, nor one would think, survivable, idea. The driver from Boston carrying news of the plague, didn't make it, even though his message did. L.A. brainstorms (don't chuckle): What if some resourceful folks hip to the ultimate van conversion, 1970s-pre-Hummer style -- a van contraption in which one could conceivably accomplish more than just getting laid in -- can construct their dream machine with radiation-proof skin, with a roof and siding able to withstand everything the ruined sky can upchuck at it? A van conversion replete with rocket launchers and the best weaponry ever made to combat reptile mutations and marauding bands of Nuclear Hell's Angels-types? Can they do it?
Why not fly the black plague antidote out to Boston instead? Because the atmosphere got so fouled up after the bombs fell, that it literally rains cat and dog carcasses, not to mention elephants, fish, and hippopotamuses too. The air is so bad that air transportation is a joke. Any pilot foolhardy enough to try and get his craft airborne would be knocked out of the sky in seconds, if not by deceased zoo animals, then by a sofa or VW bug. Used to be birds were problematic for pilots. In Damnation Alley, it's everything, including the kitchen sink.
Everything got gargantuan out there in the wasteland of Middle America that's become Damnation Alley, except humans, who are no more morbidly obese than they always were, their population having shrunk to one-millionth its former size, approximately. Gila Monsters have become monsters indeed, mutated as large as those rectilinear monstrosities once known as "motorhomes" -- and that's just when they've hatched! Rattlesnakes slither through the pulverized cities-turned-into-asteroid-craters as long as freight trains. The birds make Hitchcock's seem like mere innocuous butterflies. Yet somehow when they fly, along with super-sized swarms of bats (gross!), they're able to avoid all that detritus of damnation up in the sky.
Can Hell Tanner survive that damnable ride to Boston through Damnation Alley? If he can, will he arrive in time to save its dwindling citizenry being picked off, one by one, by the black plague? Will he get to hook up, along the way, with some skanky biker mamas, all tatted (or tied) up? I'm not saying, I'm not saying, and I'm not saying (a gentleman never tells). Read the damn good (and great B-movie equivalent) of a book yourself for the answers, if you dare. I wouldn't dare, however, watch the bad B-movie made out of this book, starring Jan Michael Vincent as Hell Tanner. I wouldn't watch it if only because the cockroaches depicted in it aren't even as big as my hands, whereas in the book, assuming Zelazny had included cockroaches in it, which he didn't, would've undoubtedly been as large as tanks.
Remember the band Hawkwind? They released a song in 1977, the same year Damnation Alley was adapted for the silver screen, off their Quark, Strangeness and Charm album, titled, coincidentally, "Damnation Alley". It's seriously bitchen! I've posted its lyrics below ~