Thursday, May 2, 2019

The Outrider #1

The Outrider #1, by Richard Harding
June, 1984  Pinnacle Books

What were they thinking [for the cover], having Andrew-Dice-Down’s-Syndrome as the hero? 

 -- Zwolf

Over the years a few people have emailed me about the Outrider series, which was Pinnacle’s attempt to jump on the post-nuke pulp bandwagon. It ran for five volumes, with an unplublished sixth volume. According to an Amazon reviewer who hunted down and contacted Robert Tine, the author who served as “Richard Harding” for the entire series, Tine still has this unpublished manuscript but has no plans to ever release it. Anyway I figured it was time I got around to reading the series.

I remember seeing these books in school back in the ‘80s when I was on my original men’s adventure kick, but I don’t think I could ever find the first volume, so I never started reading the series. Somehow I was under the impression Outrider took place in the immediate aftermath of nuclear war, but it’s at least a hundred years out, so pretty much it’s along the same lines as Doomsday Warrior. Even the writing is similar; Tine goes for what’s almost a juvenile fiction tone, save for the egregious usage of the word “fuck,” which peppers the narrative more times than the average David Mamet script. He also POV-hops like a mother, with the narrative jumping willy-nilly from one character’s perspective to another with absolutely no warning for the reader. This still bugs the hell out of me but these days I’ve tried to consider this lazy writing as “psychedelic.”

Our hero is Bonner (I spent practically the entire book misreading it as “Boner”), a legendary badass in this Road Warrior retread of a post-nuke future. Gradually we learn that years before he was the first “Outrider:” a sort of post-nuke Knights of the Round Table who ventured around the blasted remains of the United States. Actually maybe they were more like leather-clad variations of Lewis and Clark, as they were also mapping out the nuked ruins of the country. But all that fell apart when Leather, formerly Bonner’s friend, went bad and took over “the Slavestates,” running his fiefdom from “the Cap,” aka Washington, DC.

Now Bonner makes his home in Chicago, humorously presented as a safe haven in this future society; it’s basically like an Old West town, in which the gun is still the law but everyone tries to get along and live free of the various tyrants who control the country. Tine doesn’t tell us too much about his setting, likely intending to gradually world-build as the series progresses. We don’t even learn when the nuclear war occurred; in fact, no one knows anything about the society that came before, save for Bonner, who has learned stuff from books. I thought this concept came off a bit awkwardly. At least Doomsday Warrior has the premise that Century City was founded by survivors of the nukes, thus explaining how society is still remembered a hundred years later, or at least looked to as a golden age of sorts.

When we meet him Bonner’s in bed with some woman whose name isn’t mentioned – not that Tine delivers any sex at all in the novel (again, it’s very juvenile in tone) – when some dude comes in and tries to kill him. Bonner is known for using knives and the occasional shotgun, and as mentioned there’s a legend about him, how badass he is and etc. Initially he comes off like any other character in the book, but only eventually do we learn he goes into a sort of kill-lust when engaged in combat, like the living embodiment of death or something. This first action scene doesn’t give any indication of that, though, and mostly serves to set up the sole plot of the book: this would-be assassin reveals that Leather has captured Dara, Boner’s old flame, and has put a bounty on Bonner’s head.

With no explanation-via-narrative of what he’s planning to do, Bonner gets his car gassed up (as Zwolf accurately described it, “basically pipework welded around an engine”) and heads out of town. His destination – much to the consternation of his friends – is the Cap, where he’s going to settle the score with Leather. There’s a goofy part where outside the city Bonner bumps into another former associate – a recurring bit seems to be he knows everyone out on the road, but then the implication is that not too many people have cars, thus it’s a small group of people to even know – and this one too decides to try for the bounty on Bonner’s head. It of course turns out to be a bad idea, however Tine is not a men’s adventure author to dwell on the gory details.

Another guy Bonner runs into turns out to be one of his companions for the trip: Starling, whose schtick seems to be that he’s good with rifles or something. He decides to go along with Bonner basically for the hell of it. A more dynamic personality is introduced in Cooker, a “gashound” the two free in an extended action sequence against the Stomers, Leather’s, uh, leather-garbed goon squad. Foregoing guns, Cooker employs a flame thrower on his massive vehicle, which is basically a rolling gas tank. He’s one of the new breed of men who only think of gas – the comparison is made to the gold rushers of the past – and also foregoes such basic necessities as washing and taking care of himself and etc. The endless banter between him and Starling is one of the high points of the novel. 

Along the way we get a glimpse of Leather’s hellish domain, the Slavestates – this via a random character who is set up in another of those abrupt POV-hops and who makes his laborious way back to the Cap to tell Leather Bonner’s alive and coming for him. Leather as described sounds like he walked out of a ‘70s heavy metal group. He doesn’t do much to bring himself to life – there’s a blandness to all the characterizations, save for Cooker – and indeed his whole sudden idea to get Bonner isn’t much explained. But he’s the villain of the piece so it’s no biggie. We also don’t get too much irony out of his living in the White House, because like the rest of the characters, he has no understanding of the world that came before.

That’s another thing that bugged me. During their trip south Bonner, Starling, and Cooker comment on the ruins of the past and the latter two marvel over Bonner’s book-learned explanations of what such and such a thing was, or what strange customs the pre-nuke Americans had. I felt that the total lack of comprehension was a little hard to buy; the characters were more like aliens on a new world. But perhaps that was the intent. Some of it is pretty hurmorous, like their reaction to astroturf in a stadium. Per the post-nuke template, there’s also an element of horror, particularly when the trio encounter mutant rat-creatures in a New York subway. Just as freakish is Leather’s army of Radleps, apparently a contraction of “radiation lepers:” mutants who are mindlessly devoted to Leather and will fight to the death for him.

Throughout the quest the group gets in frequent firefights with the Stormers, and there’s a cool part midway through where they free another of Bonner’s old comrades from Alcatraz. Here the three ransack the Stormer weapons cache and come out with some unused Steyr automatic rifles. Even these Cooker refuses, torching people with his flamethrower instead. As for the old comrade they free, this is unintentionally humorous because it’s never properly explained why Bonner even needs him. Anyway it’s a guy named Harvey who dresses up in an old business suit because he considers it a sign of status – yet another thing that’s come down to these nuke descendants is that important people wore three-piece suits.

Harvey himself doesn’t bring much to the tale, but it’s through him that Bonner’s party also takes on the so-called “Mean Brothers,” a towering, troll-like pair of brutes who would be more at home in the pages of Doomsday Warrior. In fact it’s hard not to think of the character Archer when reading about them – they eschew weapons save for the odd axe or hammer, preferring to literally rip people apart with their hands. The last addition to Bonner’s party is a bona fide lesbian biker gang: the Sisters, who wear “old jungle fatigues and the bits of high fashion paraphernalia they had been able to loot from the old world,” including knee-high boots.

What makes Bonner’s careful assembling of his special team is the fact that he doesn’t even use them when he makes his final assault on Leather, in the Cap. As if in brazen disregard of the previous hundred-some pages he’s spent on introducing each new “team member,” conveying the idea that Bonner at least has some plan in mind and needs these particular people to make it happen, Tine just has Bonner make a sudden decision to handle things solo, and he marches right into Leather’s lair and confronts him, all by himself! But again, this just only furthers the juvenile tone of the series. He’s of course quickly captured and tied up.

Here another long-developed subplot is abruptly fizzled: Dara, who you’ll recall was the whole purpose behind Bonner’s quest to DC, is barely in the book for a few pages. She’s hauled out by Leather’s goons, already half-dead from beatings and rapings, and Leather announces that he’s going to rape her right in front of Leather. But after she kicks him in the balls, Leather orders his men to “cut her…beat her,” and several Stormers and Radleps set in on her, beating her to a pulp. The brazen disregard for plot structure sort of undermines the intended horror of the situation.

Worse yet, Tine seems to end the story well before his word count has been hit; Bonner’s friends come to the rescue in spectacular fashion, and Bonner and Leather confront one another. Bonner chops off Leather’s hands – per Zwolf, the villain will come up with goofy hand substitutes in future installments – but, like some ‘80s action cartoon, Leather escapes before Bonner can finish him off. This would seem to be the end of the story, but I can only imagine Tine got a phone call asking him to “elongate” (per Carsenio) the tale, thus the final quarter features this newly-introduced character, a badass tracker type named Beck, hunting Bonner and team through the Firelands.

Yet another of Bonner’s old companions, Beck is kept in captivity by Leather and is described as “a huge granite boulder of a man,” even taller and heavier than the Mean Brothers. In what can only be seen as absurd reasoning, Leather is certain that Beck will hunt down Bonner, despite the fact that they were once best buds, because Beck “goes to the highest bidder.” But then Leather’s suffering from a lack of hands so probably isn’t thinking straight. Anyway this whole final part is ridiculous because it’s clear as day what’s going to happen when Leather releases Beck from his dungeon and just swears he’ll give him a bunch of money and let him go free in exchange for hunting down and bringing back his best friend. So in other words the “suspense” is laughable.

As Zwolf also mentioned, the final half of the novel sort of descends into constant action; it also gets a bit gorier, with nice touches like severed Radlep heads being thrown around. But on the whole I’d put this series on the level of Endworld, only with as stated more of an R rating so far as the language goes. Otherwise it very clearly seems to have been written for 12 or 13 year-old boys, and it’s my suspicion that’s exactly what Tine set out to do. In that regard Outrider can be seen as a success. Personally I prefer a slightly more “mature” tone in my post-nuke pulp (say written for 14 or 15 year old boys!), so to me it’s got nothing on Traveler or the almighty Phoenix.


Felicity Walker said...

When I saw the cover my first thought was a disappointed Mr. Belding from “Saved by the Bell.”

The Badger said...

I loved the fuck out of these books! As a 13 year old boy, of course.