Entertainment | Books
|‘Deliverance’: A Dark Heart Still Beating|
Dwight Garner - New York Times
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August 25, 2010
On the page and off, James Dickey (1923-1997) was a maximalist. His roomy, loquacious poems spill down the page in a waterfall style and in a voice he called “country surrealism.” It makes sense that he called some of these poems “walls of words,” similar to the record producer Phil Spector’s echoing “wall of sound.” Dickey’s music, rougher and weirder than Mr. Spector’s, was similarly packed with reverb.
|James Dickey, center, in a cameo as a sheriff, doing a scene with Jon Voight in "Deliverance." (Everett Collection)|
It’s odd, then, that Dickey is probably best remembered for a spare novel, one from which he stripped most of the poetry, pulling out the finer phrasings like weeds. That novel was his first, “Deliverance” (1970), a book that turns a youthful 40 this year. It’s a novel that I was happy to discover upon rereading it by a deep lake this summer — Dickey’s stuff is always best read beside a vaguely sinister body of water — has lost little of its sleekness or power. The book’s anniversary shouldn’t slip by unnoticed.
“Deliverance” is the kind of novel few serious writers attempt any longer, a book about wilderness and survival whose DNA contains shards of both “Heart of Darkness” and “Huckleberry Finn.” It tells the story of four mild, middle-class men from suburban Atlanta who embark on a canoe trip, snaking down a remote Georgia river that will soon disappear beneath a dam. In the woods they find boiling rapids and two sinister mountain men. Before the novel is over, the carnage is nearly complete: three men have been crudely buried, one has been raped, and the survivors have had the bark peeled from their modern sensibilities.
These days our culture takes these kinds of narratives, about masculine midlife longing and regret, and de-fangs them, turning them into films like “Wild Hogs,” the benign John Travolta motorcycle trip movie. The novelists who take us into the woods and wilds, Jim Harrison and Thomas McGuane invaluably among them, bring along slapstick and irony as critical mosquito repellent. (Was it Robert Bly, in his “Iron John” phase, who made it impossible for American men to walk purposefully into a forest without feeling as if drums and self-awareness needed to be involved?)
In the 1990s novelists signed over the deed to the adventure story to their nonfiction brethren, and that decade brought us Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” and Sebastian Junger’s “Perfect Storm.” The men of Generation X — the aging slackers in Sam Lipsyte’s recent novel, “The Ask,” and in the film “Greenberg” — have little wish to grow up at all, and should they have to, they’ll do it near gastropubs, art houses and public transportation.
Dickey wrote about men, neither dudes nor (although they were fathers) dads. The men in “Deliverance” meet real monsters and recognize their ability to become, in Dickey’s phrase, countermonsters.
“Deliverance” had its moment. The book got ecstatic reviews; its author was interviewed on “Today.” “Deliverance” tangled on best-seller lists with “Love Story,” “The Godfather” and “The French Lieutenant’s Woman.”
It was an unsettling book that arrived, as if on cue, at an unsettled time. In its primitive violence readers caught echoes of Vietnam, the Sharon Tate murders, even of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. In its elegiac lament for a disappearing river, the book chimed along with America’s budding environmental movement.
“Deliverance” caught a second wind in 1972, when John Boorman’s excellent film version opened. It starred Burt Reynolds at the peak of his physical grace, and Jon Voight, with Dickey in a memorable, leering cameo as a sheriff. Dickey wrote the film’s screenplay, hewing closely to his novel’s plot and dialogue. The movie’s most memorable phrase (“squeal like a pig”) was, however, a demented bit of improv.
No wallflower, Dickey reveled in the attention “Deliverance” brought him. But he feared that the novel’s success would overshadow his poetry, a form he took more seriously. He was right to worry. “Deliverance” has had a complicated afterlife.
In 1998 the editors of the Modern Library placed the novel at No. 42 on its list of the century’s 100 Best Novels in English. Last year, however, “Deliverance” got little traction in a survey of the best Southern novels of all time, undertaken by the literary magazine The Oxford American. (It tied for 24th with three other books.)
The novel has the primal witchery of “Lord of the Flies,” but attempts to teach it in classrooms have mostly been rebuffed: the novel’s homosexual rape scene, and its musky sexuality throughout, are too much for many. “Deliverance” has its detractors among Southerners, too, for its portrait of mountain people as toothless sociopaths. When he was governor of Georgia, the future United States senator Zell Miller placed it on his list of most hated books.
Dickey’s novel, like his poetry, has been in critical decline — unfortunately, I think — partly because of his excesses off the page, excesses carefully documented in Henry Hart’s fine biography “James Dickey: The World as a Lie” (2000). He’s been perceived as too studiedly macho, too careerist, a serial exaggerator if not an outright fabulist. (He radically embellished his flying record during World War II.) He slept with too many women; he drank oceanically.
“I am crazy about being drunk,” he wrote. “I like it like Patton liked war.”
He too glibly shivved other poets. He called Robert Frost a “super-jerk,” compared Sylvia Plath to Judy Garland and referred to John Milton as a stuffed goat. Reviewing a book of Dickey’s letters in The New York Times Book Review in 1999, the poet J.D. McClatchy posited that “under all the chest hair, he was a hollow man.” Mr. McClatchy’s stinging takedown ended this way: “In his letters, it now seems, Dickey said too much, in his poems too little.”
Clearing the clutter from around Dickey’s life takes doing, but the work is repaid. His was a jangling American voice; in his amplitude he was the closest thing the South had to a deep-fried Norman Mailer.
Dickey won a National Book Award for “Buckdancer’s Choice” (1965), a poetry collection that showed off his mature style — roiling free verse, split lines, extreme conditions. (His long poem “Falling” described a 29-year-old stewardess sucked from a jet in flight.) In 1966 he succeeded Stephen Spender as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress — a job we now call poet laureate — and he enjoyed his term in a way few have since. He held a news conference, ripping into Dylan Thomas for who knows what. Off the page he cultivated swaggering hobbies: archery, fishing, guitar, the banjo.
Dickey began writing “Deliverance” in the early 1960s, basing the novel on canoe trips he’d taken with friends. The early drafts he wrote in a dense, emotionally charged style modeled on James Agee’s in “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” The book got leaner as he revised.
His hobbies paid off: the prose about rivers, music and archery is acute. The “Dueling Banjos” scene, made famous by the film, is just as good on the page. The narrator notes how the rural boy’s “fingers moved only slightly, about like those of a good typist; the music was just there.”
Even Dickey’s years working at an advertising agency in Manhattan aren’t wasted. The narrator of “Deliverance,” Ed Gentry, is an ad designer; he sees the world through a tidy aesthetic lens. Sometimes that lens mocks him. When Ed climbs a rock wall to try and kill (with a bow and arrow) another man, he thinks: “What then, art director? Graphics consultant? What is the layout? It is this: to shoot him from behind, somewhere on the top of the gorge.”
An element I’d never picked up in “Deliverance,” until this reading, was its links to “On the Road.” The narrator’s friend Lewis, played in the movie by Mr. Reynolds, is this novel’s Dean Moriarty. Ed loves the “secret craziness” in Lewis’s look, and the way “he had the appearance of always leaping to meet something, of going forward with joy and anticipation.”
At another moment, Lewis declares, “Here we go, out of the sleep of the mild people, into the wild rippling water.”
“Deliverance” has its narrative eddies, and moments where its backwoods mysticism is ripe. But Dickey’s moral awareness infuses this book with grainy life; guilt and blame are not easily assigned. The book presents a quagmire none of its characters escape. In 2010, it’s lonely work looking for its serious successors.