Thursday, July 16, 2015

Overload #2: The Wrath

Overload #2: The Wrath, by Bob Ham
July, 1989  Bantam Books

You have to give Bantam Books credit: they tried to give the men’s adventure genre a shot in the arm as it was dying, releasing a few new series in the late ‘80s. Overload was one of them, and went on to run for a surprising twelve volumes. The concept of this series was aptly summed up by Zwolf: “gun-totin’ truckers.”

Seriously, if Overload was a movie it would probably feature Meatloaf in a role. But author Bob Ham – a real name, not a pseudonym – is very serious here. And Bantam is fully committed as well; the back of the book even features an ad for Overdrive Magaine, “the Professional Journal for Successful Trucking.” But the author and publisher must’ve tapped a nerve, as this series went on a lot longer than you’d expect.

I’m missing the first volume, Personal War, but ironically enough someone emailed me just before I started reading this second volume, telling me that the first book was “the most homoerotic thing ever.” Well friends, that vibe is also apparent in The Wrath, which features long scenes of our heroes, Marc Lee and Carl Browne, driving around in a truck and discussing their feelings. Oh, and they apparently live together.

Lee and Browne are often referred to as “the Delta Warriors” by Ham, given that they’re both in Delta Force – the toughest bastards in the outfit, of course. Lee’s the son of a Dallas truck company owner and Browne’s the muscular black guy. The first volume apparently detailed the battle between the Lee family company Leeco and the mafia warriors of a New York capo named Segalini. In the climax of it Marc Lee’s father ended up in a coma (he’s now in a hospital in Dallas, under heavy security) and the Segalinis ended up dead.

But as The Wrath opens, we are informed that Segalini’s son survived. This is Bruno Segalini, who is now confined to a wheelchair, his achilles tendons having been severed by Lee and Browne in the first book! Apparently the “Delta Warriors” thought they killed Bruno in the climax of that book, but he escaped; now, assisted by his muscular henchman Ceps (as in “Biceps”), Segalini plots the utter destruction of Leeco. To do this he has retained the services of B.D., aka “Bad Dude,” a ‘Nam psychopath biker who leads a sadistic gang of bikers called Lobo.

It’s all very B-movie, but Ham peppers the book with acronyms and brandnames, proving to us that he’s done his research. If paramedics show up on a scene, for example, we’ll get long detail on what exactly it is they’ll do to save a life. If there’s a bomb to be disarmed, he’ll tell us how it’s done, step by step. He also wants to tell us all about then-current communications technology, as well as technical details of the various firearms employed. And yet this is a book that contains lines of dialog like, “I have to make a choice to either be in the trucking business or stay in Delta Force.”

Ham also goes for a cinematic feel, with constant cutting to and fro. We’ll have Lee and Browne in Dallas, trying to deal with a sudden fire at the Leeco headquarters, and then we’ll jump over to B.D., who cuts a swathe of sadism through the Smoky Mountains. Then we’ll cut over to Bruno Segalini, who sits in a house in Myrtle Beach and trades inane “my vengeance will be sweet” banter with Ceps. Then later we’ll cut over to Jill, Marc Lee’s girlfriend, who sits in the hospital with Marc’s comatose father and tells him about her dreams(!?).

But despite this attempt to goose the narrative with a cinematic feel, The Wrath instead comes off as rather sluggish. It’s not helped by Ham’s tendency to overdescribe. For example the opening conflagration at the Leeco HQ goes on way too long, with some mystery fire starting on the premises before the bomb squad shows up. He also has too many characters in play, and has to keep going back to them lest we forget about them: Segalini and Ceps are about as immaterial to the plot as you can get, thus the constant cutovers to them are a bit trying.

Oh, and meanwhile Lee and Browne are being ordered back on duty; turns out there’s some action down in Central America and their squad has been ordered to move in. But Lee and Browne ignore the summons, thus officially going AWOL. Strangely, their Delta Force commander is aware of their vigilante activities in the first book, however he draws the line when they don’t report for duty! This ultimately builds up a storyline which will continue in the next volume, as Lee and Browne manage to get themselves in the sights of the federal government thanks to their private warfaring.

The stuff with B.D. and his gang is probably the highlight of the book. In fact he provides the brunt of the novel’s action, and is also the titular “Wrath,” a name he acquired back in ‘Nam. B.D. personally wants to kill Lee and Browne, as their activities in the first book resulted in the death of the man who provided B.D. with his cocaine. Now he and his Lobos run amok in the Smoky Mountains, getting in occasional fights with truckers. There’s a goofy, endless subplot where they kill one trucker in revenge for the death of a fallen Lobo and then later get in a running fight with more truckers.

While the violence in The Wrath isn’t excessive (and nor is the sex), there is a sadistic vibe. The novel opens with the capture of a Leeco trucker, who is strung up in the Lobo camp and slowly tortured. At one point parts of his flesh are sliced off and eaten. But he does get laid at least – this courtesy Rapture, the dirty blonde mama of the bikers. Rapture mostly drives the van that follows the Lobo’s Harleys and as the novel progresses she becomes more and more disenfranchised with B.D. due to his penchant for cruelty.

Lee and Browne really don’t get active until well over halfway through, when they decide to take the war to Segalini. Ham is one of those authors who doesn’t mind shoehorning stuff in to meet his word count or to add a little action, like for example a totally irrelevant part where some woman drives into a lake as Lee and Browne are passing by, and the two men dive in to save her. This whole section is such a waste of the reader’s time as to be hilarious, but it does meet the likely goal of adding about twenty pages to the book.

After a couple failed hits in various diners, Lee and Browne survive unscathed and get word from their cop contact back in Dallas that B.D. is somewhere in the Smoky Mountains. Despite pages and pages of buildup, Ham delivers a bit of an anticlimax. The Lobos have M-60s and LAW rocket launchers, but our two heroes manage to get the lockdown on them, barrelling through camp and firing machine guns out of their big rig. Then B.D. and Lee get in a knockdown, dragout fight – but neither of them dies.

Then Segalini and Ceps show up and are basically killed in a paragraph, even though Ham has spent so much time making the reader savor the moment that they’ll die. Instead, they’re merely shot and then their car is blown up. When will these men’s adventure writers learn that we readers want to see the main villains sliced, diced, and gutted?? B.D.’s fate is a little better, if unbelievable; we’re to believe that one of his gang is actually an undercover FBI agent and has been going along with his barbarism all this time so as to gather evidence. But now it’s payback time!

As mentioned, Lee and Browne come under attack by the Feds by novel’s end, and it looks like it will be off to the slammer for them – transporting highly-illegal weapons across state lines, engaging in open warfare, and going AWOL from the army. My suspicion though is that in the next novel they’ll instead get hired to work for the government as, well…gun-totin’ truckers.

I’ve got a few more volumes of Overload, so eventually I’ll find out.


Zwolf said...

Excellent review! I keep eying my stack of Overloads and thinking I need to read one, but I keep getting distracted. That happens a lot...

Gotta love the covers of these things. They got crazier as they went along, with rocket launchers on the truck and the guys tearing ass on Quadrunners. I mean, look at that cover... those guys have serious guitar-face going on. If you photoshopped guitars over the Uzis you'd have a perfect album cover for a very silly metal band.

Zbu said...

These things are a treasure to behold. The writing is pretty awful and the homoeroticism....well, you don't have to read deep at all to see it.

Given the Zwolf description, maybe this was a failed attempt to novelize the old 'The Highwayman' TV show?

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, guys. Geez, "The Highwayman," forgot all about that one! I agree on these crazy covers, which were almost like redneck sci-fi action. My favorite of the ones I have is #10: Michigan Madness, which you can see here.

Felicity Walker said...

Bob Ham is the kind of name that could fit on a personalised licence plate!

James Reasoner said...

I wrote a couple of audio-only books about two-fisted, mystery-solvin' truck-drivin' brothers. Probably my most obscure books, at least among the ones I can claim. Trucker fiction was actually a fairly popular sub-genre for a little while, between this series, William W. Johnstone's Rig Warrior books, and others I'm bound to be forgetting.