Book Review: Deliverance by James Dickey
I mostly intended to review science fiction and fantasy books on this blog, in keeping with the theme of my own novel. But I’m taking a break from SF for a bit, and I wanted to share my thoughts on this book with you.
I watched the movie, once upon a time, though I thought I knew what it was about and I thought it wouldn’t interest me. I was surprised to be wrong in both cases. And then surprised again when I discovered that Deliverance is a book as well as a movie, written in 1970 by one of America’s best known poets.
Or so they say. I don’t know much about American poets.
But after discovering that, despite its reputation, the movie was more about outdoor survival than cornholin’ hillbillies I decided to give this previously unknown (to me) American classic a try. And Dickey doesn’t disappoint!
I really liked this book, though I hovered between a three and four star rating. What had me leaning toward the three was the dialogue. All of the dialogue felt unnatural and forced, like watching old movies where every line is so thought out and perfect that you can’t imagine a person actually speaking that way. Even the use of colloquialism came off as contrived and stilted, and I had trouble picturing the characters as having a conversation. It was like they were speaking into a void, not playing off one another at all. And on top of that the narrative voice is inconsistent with the narrator’s speaking voice, which bothered me. Except for the usage of the word “I” to denote who was speaking, I would never have believed it was the same person. Perhaps this was done for stylistic reasons, but I felt it was awkward. This could be simply that I’m not sure what
This problem with dialogue is almost exacerbated by the pure and beautiful prose in between. Really, Dickey is a poet. He conjures stunning images with remarkable simplicity, and is well-able to evoke the spirit of that wild Georgian river and the fear and grandeur it inspires in four unskilled men who attempt to master it and themselves.
This is a very manly book—it is about men, and as near as I can tell (as a woman) it delivers a view of the world that is purely masculine. Indeed, the only appearances by women are like bookends to the story; they appear at the beginning and the end to offer contrast to the heart of the story. This didn’t offend me. It is interesting to see, actually, how little women and feminine imagery seemed to play in this text. Some reviewers have mentioned homoerotic undertones in Deliverance, and although I can see why they might interpret it that way, I felt it was something more than that (or less).
Ed, the narrator, and to a lesser degree, Drew and Bobby, idolize the über macho Lewis, whom they have followed into the wilds of southern Georgia. Lewis is the kind of man who doesn’t feel alive until his life is threatened—a disillusioned suburbanite who throws himself into thrill seeking hobbies to distract himself from his own mortality. Though the other men are mostly satisfied with their lives, Lewis’ need for adventure is contagious and they find themselves agreeing to a white water canoe trip that is completely out of their league.
The book is rife with comparisons between the men, physical and psychological, and most of this centres upon Ed’s idealization of Lewis’ masculinity and physical prowess. There is a sexualized kind of flavour to this idealization as well, though I felt it came out of Ed’s desire to be like Lewis rather than some repressed urge to sleep with him. Sure, Ed admires Lewis’ glistening thigh muscles a few times, but he does so through a lens of hero worship.
For Ed, this trip is about his own masculinity. He needs to prove to himself that he can be like Lewis, and when they get out there on the river, he needs to prove to himself that he can best nature. Nature is an interesting character in the book as well; the river plays as integral a role in the story as any of the four men. But Dickey keeps nature a nearly androgynous entity, and when he stray from this even nature becomes a masculine force. This is an odd departure from tradition in western literature, I think, especially for bodies of water which are nearly always described in feminine terms. Dickey’s nature is all crashing white water, sharp rocks, rigid cliff-faces, and roaring in the ears. It emasculates the group as surely as do the sodomizing hillbillies the book is so famous for.
Bobby coasts through to survival, but never manages to reclaim what he lost during the rape—it is suggested that he was a lesser man to begin with, and he is certainly diminished in the end, so much so that Ed cannot even look him in the eye again when they return to the city. Lewis, too, is reduced by the trip, though it is the river that bests him, not the men.
Ed’s reclamation of his own manhood comes as he climbs the rock face to the top of the gorge to face the gunman. Although he manages to kill his rival, it is really the climb itself that is representative of Ed’s growth, and which symbolizes the change in him. What is interesting is that climbing the cliff is one of the most sexualized scenes in the text, akin to the rape, as if by climbing the cliff Ed is taking something from nature which it does not want to give. When Ed looks down upon the river, from halfway up the cliff wall, he imagines he can see his own face in the rocks below—he has made nature his own, and he will survive because of it.
This is definitely a book I would recommend to people with an interest in the outdoors. I think it’s likely necessary to the enjoyment of the text. Dickey’s writing feels very true to the experience of being far from civilization, he seems to understand the vulnerability of man in nature. But I’m not sure it’s a thing that you can understand if you’ve never been there yourself. Not that you have to be flying down a gorge in a canoe to understand the power of nature, and it is easy to imagine that kind of fear without doing it oneself. Yet I can see how the subtlety of Dickey’s prose—particularly in Ed’s more reflective moods—might be lost on someone who hasn’t spent a night in the woods. Dickey believes in that power, even in the calmness of a moonlit campsite on the edge of a tranquil stretch of water. And I do too.