Book review: Deliverance

DELIVERANCE : a novel, by James Dickey. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970. 278 pp.

Book coverIn writing about this novel, there’s no need to worry about spoiling the ending for those who haven’t read it. Almost everyone in these United States — or at least in the MSAs of the Sun Belt, where I’ve spent nearly all my life — knows the story or has seen the movie starring Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight.

Who can forget the rape scene in which two brutal hillbillies attack the chubby city boy? (FWIW, the famous command to “squeal like a pig” doesn’t occur in the novel; it was ad-lib.) For middle-class, metro-bred Southerners, this scene embodies the fear of the unknown South beyond the suburbs. For other Americans, especially those who despise the South’s political or cultural conservatism, those inhuman hayseeds represent the essence of the whole benighted region.

So potent is this scene, in fact, that for many viewers Deliverance, the movie, is just a straightforward action flick about vengeance against evil.

Imagine how Hollywood might trailer the story if it were released today:

[Establishing shot of woods.] In a world without law. Only one law remains. Kill. [Drawing a bow.] Or be killed. [Shotgun pointed at chest. Cue music.] Four ordinary men. [Sequence: Men with wives, in city.] Seeking adventure. [Donning life jackets.] On an untamed river. [Men in canoes.] Will find themselves tested by evil. [Sequence: Alarming rural characters.] Violence. [Bow shot.] And death. [Drew’s mangled remains.] They came for the challenge of white water. [Men in canoes, shooting rapids.] Swift currents. [River noise builds.] Unknown canyons. [Sudden silence.] But they didn’t know the real danger. [Cue noise; speed up.] Lurking in the trees. [Trees.] Waiting on the cliffs. [Cliffs.] Armed. [Shotgun.] Dangerous. [Faces of terrified men.] And related to the county sheriff. [Halt. Sheriff to Ed: “Don’t ever do anything like this again.”] Now. [Rapid action sequence.] In the struggle of their lives. They must fight to the death for: [Title.] Deliverance. [Fade over dark scene, night noises.]

Well, all of this is just to say that, compared to the flick, the novel operates at a much higher plane of beauty, uncertainty, and hard choices. (Good luck figuring out what the title really means.)

If you only know James Dickey as the guy who did a cameo as the sheriff (yep, that’s him), you need to read his words. Check out this novel. Wrestle with his poetry. I reckon it’ll do you good.

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