Reed King, FKA USA: A Novel. Flatiron Books, 2019. 480 pp.
Although it has become something of a high-camp classic, not may people actually saw Damnation Alley when it appeared in theaters in 1977. Released five months after Star Wars, the post-apocalyptic science fiction vehicle for George Peppard and Jan-Michael Vincent was a spectacular bomb. Writing in the New York Times at the time, Janet Maslin noted that “The only real value of ‘Damation Alley’ is educational: This is the movie to see if you don’t understand what was so wonderful about the special effects in, say, ‘Star Wars.’”
Most moviegoers didn’t need the lesson and stayed away in droves. Reed King was apparently not one of them.
King is the pseudonymous author of FKA USA, a science fiction novel that is, in virtually every respect, Damnation Alley’s literary, aesthetic, and spiritual descendant. And it is even almost as good as the 1977 film. It falls into a curious sub-genre of post-apocalyptic road fiction that dates to John Christopher’s 1956 novel The Death of Grass and the 1960 Ray Milland film Panic in the Year Zero.
While there has been some very fine post-apocalyptic fiction, like Neville Shute’s 1957 novel On the Beach, and Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon from 1959, what sets post-apocalyptic road fiction apart is a mobility that transforms the apocalypse from tragedy to heroic epic. Shute’s survivors wait passively for death, Frank’s struggle to restore something resembling pre-apocalyptic normalcy. But the road story allows the hero, whether it’s Max Rockatansky in the Mad Max films, or Denton and Tanner in Damnation Alley to encounter a series of obstacles and threats, overcome them, accruing ever greater heroic capital, before finally attaining the goal.
It’s all rather like an Arthurian quest, where the hero wins a few duels, resists temptation, solves some riddles, and heals the Fisher King on the way to attaining the Grail – and all of these trials and adventures are meant to prove, by the end of the narrative, his worthiness to claim the final goal. So the heroes of Damnation Alley drive east from California to Albany, NY, encountering giant scorpions, flesh-eating mutant cockroaches, desert hillbillies, and an inland tsunami before finally reaching the remnants of American civilization in upstate New York. And in FKA USA, Truckee Wallace heads west, at the behest of 2085’s President of the United States, from Arkansas to San Francisco with a talking goat, encountering violence, peril, “dymo addicts,” and robot hookers.
And that’s pretty much all you need to know.
None of this is to say that FKA USA is not an enjoyable book. It has some great color, engaging dialogue, and lovely moments. “It felt like someone had drilled a hole in my chest and all the darkness in the world was rushing into it,” Truckee narrates at a particularly emotional point in the plot. Nice line. There is something human there. Moreover, King interrupts the necessarily linear story with interstitial references, footnotes, and narrative interludes in a manner evoking John Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy that makes it all the richer, if not actually deeper.
The problem is that King really wants to write a science fiction story that speaks in some meaningful way to our late-capitalist, social mediatized, postmodern moment – and he fails. FKA USA relates to science fiction in the same way a pizza made by someone who had never actually eaten one would might relate to pizza. It looks right, but the flavors are all wrong. I have no doubt that King is one of the very few people who have seen Damnation Alley – the parallels are just too obvious – but he does not seem to have read or seen much else of the genre. So everything looks right, but it doesn’t taste, or smell, right.
In fact, FKA USA really is pastiche, a parody of science fiction through the lens of adolescent fantasy. Throughout the novel, I could almost hear King breathlessly saying “wouldn’t it be cool if…” every time Truckee passes out (which is often) and regains consciousness to face a new revelation, or tours the ruins of a commercialized, overdeveloped Grand Canyon. It’s all a bit arch, containing superficial references – the kind you can get from a Leonard Maltin movie book – to Cherry 2000, Mad Max: Fury Road, AI: Artificial Intelligence, Blade Runner and, of course, Damnation Alley. But that’s the point.
Ultimately, FKA USA is neither science fiction ot, in fact, a novel at all. King is not interested in telling a story, so much as reframing and reconfiguring cultural artifacts. He is not creating anything new, so much as pushing around detritus in the junkyard of post-industrial, late-capitalist America. And that is what makes FKA USA a valuable, sometimes entertaining, and strangely terrifying read.
This is where we are, and the really apocalyptic thing is the cultural exhaustion of our life and civilization that makes a book like this possible.