Traveler #5: Road War, by D.B. Drumm
February, 1985 Dell Books
Probably the best way I could describe this fifth volume of Traveler, which is once again courtesy John Shirley, would be “a post-nuke Cannonball Run.” Seriously, Road War is all about a diverse group of cutthroats who engage in a race to discover a perhaps-mythical cache of gold. And, as with Shirley’s past Traveler output, it’s basically an extended action scene, one that doesn’t let up from first page to last.
It’s still 15 years after 1989, when WWIII went down, so time hasn’t really moved on much in the past few volumes, even though we learn the third volume was “months before.” It must be some short time after the previous volume, as Traveler is still hanging out with Link, the muscle-bound black guy he met in the climax of that installment, a former Green Beret so big that an M-16 looks like a “toy” in his hands. To tell the truth I kept confusing Link with Orwell, Traveler’s black buddy back in the third volume – not to sound racist or anything. The characters are just very familiar, and are basically just ciphers for Traveler to talk to, so it isn’t just him driving around alone in his “Meat Wagon” armored van. And another character in the book also confuses Link and Orwell, so there.
But anyway Traveler and Link are hanging out in a bar in the Drift, in the desert ruins of Nevada; a radiation-poisoned prospector known as the Old Man in the Hole gets in front of everyone, throws out some platters of beaten gold with maps scrawled on them, and claims he found a huge stash of gold out in them thar hills. The old man is a notorious bastard, prone to lying and deceit. He claims he’s telling everyone this because he himself will have no use for the gold, as he’s dying of stomach cancer – and also because he hopes everyone kills each other while hunting for it. For gold can still buy a passage to peace here in the post-apocalypse; supposedly there are areas relatively unscathed by radiation, but it costs a pretty penny to get there.
Then the Old Man starts off a gunfight which results in him getting killed – the tumor blown out of his stomach via shotgun and splattering on the wall. As ever Shirley provides his tale with customary ultra-gore, which is how I demand it. But be warned, friends, Road War is the first Shirley offering yet that does not offer any of his weird creature feature radiation-spawn mutants or any of his just-as-outrageous sex scenes! I mean for once poor old Traveler doesn’t even get laid, folks. As for the monsters, perhaps Shirley felt he’d gone overboard with them in the previous volume, which was stuffed to the mutated gills with various disgusting monsters. This time the only monsters are the human survivors of WWIII.
Chief among them is The Spike, leader of a gang of roadrats called The Wasps. The roadrats have appeared throughout the series, and are basically the mohawked, heavy metal-wearing barbarians of Road Warrior. The Spike is suitably horrific, with teeth filed to fangs and the usual screwed-up punk aesthetic; she even claims she wants to cut her “tits” off and cauterize the wound, because they just get in the way. Traveler runs into The Spike and her obedient roadrats in the bar, sparking a rivalry that will last throughout the novel. For of course, she is one of the people who sets off on the gold-hunt, as do Traveler and Link.
Traveler for his part could care little about the gold, but Link’s all fired up about it, so what the hell? “Let’s go get killed,” Traveler says; our hero is in an especially cynical mood this time around, but that only serves to make the usually-dark humor of the series all the more humorous. But man he’s like a post-nuke Philip Magellan in this one; there’s a total Marksman moment where Traveler ties a bunch of freshly-killed corpses to the back of the Meat Wagon and barrels past the Wasps, cutting the cord so that the corpses sprawl in the van’s wake as a warning.
The book really is just an extended chase scene, but it’s delivered incredibly well. Traveler and Link get in one battle after another; even “quiet” interludes, like when they pull off for a rest or to save apparently-stranded motorists, turn into full-bore action scenes. So really it has much in common with the action movies of the day; Shirley even provides a sort of soundtrack, with Traveler at one point hauling out a boom box to blare out the window as a distraction, blasting “Raw Power” by Iggy & the Stooges: “Early punk-metal rock. The raw stuff.” Link even gets in on it in a later, entertaining part where he gets behind the wheel of the Meat Wagon and comes to Traveler’s rescue, the Stooges scaring the shit out of the latest enemy they’ve encountered.
There’s even a bit of action-comedy banter between Traveler and Link, usually delivered while the bullets are flying, like when Link blows away a dude who tries to crawl into the Meat Wagon and his blood and brains splash inside – “Don’t mess up my car, bro,” complains Traveler. A bit more comedy comes via Jamaica Jack, a Drift resident captured by the Wasps and freed by Traveler and Link, at the latter’s request – Traveler as ever doesn’t go out of his way to help people, trusting no one. But Jamaica Jack doesn’t make as much impact in the narrative as I thought he might. Nor does Rosalita, a sexy Hispanic gal used as a sex-slave by The Spike(!); she rides along in the Meat Wagon with Traveler and Link, but does not engage in what I figured would be the obligatory sex scene with Traveler. Instead, she becomes Link’s woman, mostly because he’s the only one who can speak to her in Spanish.
Action is constant and energetically-delivered throughout; you never get the sense that Shirley’s just going through the motions like you would in the work of a lesser writer – like say Joseph Rosenberger. He writes every action scene as if it’s his first, with copious gore and gunplay and deadpan dialog. Some highlights would be an encounter with the Glory Boys – aka what remains of the US Army – in a ghost town, as well as a pitched battle with the “digmen” who live beneath the earth and try to catch Traveler and Link with their sticky, gladiator-style nets. And of course there are countless fights with the Wasps, The Spike increasingly desperate to kill Traveler, and vice versa.
Throughout the race our heroes keep encountering a dragster, which sometimes shoots at them as it flies by. At length – and the book occurs over two or three days – we discover that the dragster is occupied by Hill and Margolin, the two remaining members of Traveler’s old CIA Special Forces squad (Orwell, from the third volume, being the third). This is the first Traveler’s seen them since 1989, and they are ruined versions of their former selves, their minds warped by the neurotoxins Traveler himself was dosed with, back in ’89. But unlike Traveler, they were never cured of the effects, to the point that Margolin in particular has become like a machine gun-carrying Cassandra, prone to visions, just one step away from full-blown insanity.
The four manage to locate the hidden gold, which is buried in a ravine surrounded by a colony of hostile digmen. But The Spike and her sole remaining follower get the jump on our heroes, with the Spike using Traveler as a decoy for any traps the Old Man might’ve left behind (of which there are a few). The gold does indeed exist, but Traveler’s heightened senses detect something unusual about it. Not that it matters, as The Spike gets locked inside the vault due to one of those traps – and suffers one grisly fate, as we learn the Old Man really was a bastard, as the gold is radioactive and whoever finds it will die from it, just as the Old Man himself did. Plus he’s even left some food behind for whoever gets locked in the vault so they’ll live longer – to suffer longer!
There are so many pitched battles throughout Road War that the last one with the digmen doesn’t make much of an impression, but Margolin does suffer in the skirmish, offing himself via heroic sacrifice. As if proving how pointless everything is in this hellish post-nuke USA, Traveler, after going through hell to find it, basically shrugs off the lost cache of gold, and he and Hill give Link their gold maps so Link and Rosalita can go find happiness. Meanwhile Traveler’s decided to head on south to hook up with Indian galpal Jan again, last seen in the third volume. Hill says he’ll go along, which means Traveler will have a new co-riding buddy next time around.
I’ve enjoyed every volume yet of Shirley’s Traveler. He doesn’t waste the reader’s time with padding or digressive nonsense, and instead delivers a thrill-a-minute action story with plenty of gore. Not to mention a heaping helping of dark comedy. You can tell he was having fun as he wrote it, and that fun carries over to the reader.