Deliverance by James Dickey

Dell cover, 1978

Deliverance is the first book I read for The Classics Club. It was first published in 1970 and I was happy to find a 1978 movie cover copy by Dell. According to the publication information in this edition, between April 1971 and February 1978 Dell went through nineteen print runs of the novel. That’s a lot of books.

Although I first saw the 1972 movie adaptation a few, um, decades ago, I didn’t have much interest in reading this novel until Pat Conroy talked up James Dickey in his book of essays My Reading Life (2010). Conroy had this to say about Deliverance:

I found it to be 278 pages that approached perfection. Every sentence sounded marvelous, distinct, and original, and it flowed as quickly as the river it celebrated. Its tightness of construction and assuredness of style reminded me of The Great Gatbsy. Like his poetry, no line went in for showiness, no hint of laziness or inattention or loss of control. For me, Dickey had forged a palace of light for a white-water river of words (198).

Deliverance is a beautifully written book. The writing is clean and crisp. The themes are woven through the story like the river the men paddle down, sometime calm and straightforward and other times wild and curvacious. There were a few times when I felt like the book dragged on, but overall I’m happy to have read it. You could have a lot of fun deconstructing this novel. There are many themes in the novel–the destruction of nature for the sake of “progress,” city/suburban vs. country/wilds, the threat of machines and bodies failing, the living death of a safe, unchallenged suburban existence, what it means to be a man, particularly in relation to other men, and male desire (and by this I’m not referring to the rape scene but a more subtle desire of men for other men).

If you’re not familiar with this story or to refresh your memory:
The story is about four early middle-aged guys–Ed, Lewis, Drew, and Bobby–who take a canoe trip down a wild river in Georgia that is soon to be damned up to create a lake around which a posh housing development will be built. Its supposed to be a nostalgic, leisurely trip, but by day two it turns into a fight for survival.

Bloomsbury Film Classics Cover, 2005

The two primary characters are Ed Gentry, the narrator, (played by Jon Voight in the movie) and Lewis Medlock (played by Burt Reynolds). Lewis Medlock is a manly man, the guy who is in a continual battle with his body to make it the fittest it can be. He’s always challenging himself with physical feats and honing his skills as a survivalist. Ed Gentry, on the other hand, is easy going, soft around the middle, an executive who never seems to push himself very much.

Ed and the other two men rely on Lewis to take care of them. He’s clearly setup as the Alpha. When the two mountain men capture Ed and Bobby they wait and wait for Lewis to come save them. They can’t defend themselves: Bobby is sodomized and Ed is about to be forced to perform oral sex on the other mountain man. Lewis saves Ed from being molested by killing one of the mountain men with an arrow through the back. The second mountain man runs away. They argue over what to do with the body. After they encounter some bad rapids that take Lewis out of commission with a compound fracture to the thigh and where Drew is presumably drowned, Ed is forced to man-up and take care of business. Bobby is pretty useless (he was presented as such prior to the rape as well and the implication is there that it’s why he’s raped). Taking care of business means Ed must kill the mountain man who ran away before he can either kill them or tell on them. Once the survivors make it back to civilization, the game of survival continues in a different mode.

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Overall, this is a powerful book and it would be an interesting one to explore in detail. Because it’s not a book that I’ve ever heard anyone talk about having read or saw it mentioned in general American literary criticism (other than by Conroy) I was surprised to find it listed on the Modern Library’s list of 100 Best Novels.

I saw the edited TV version of the movie when I was a kid. After reading the book I watched the unedited version of the movie on Netflix. It is full of bad 1970s over-acting, but I think it’s still a decent movie (and I can now understand why people poked fun at my childhood crush on Burt Reynolds.)  If you’re interested in watching/rewatching the movie, note that James Dickey plays the sheriff.

Have you read the book? Seen the movie?


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