Friday, April 12, 2019
Deliverance by James Dickey
A literary masterpiece, whether you’ve seen the film or not
The film Deliverance is one of my top ten favorite movies of all time, and after recently rereading the James Dickey novel for I think the third time, I would have to count it among my all-time favorite books as well. Published in 1970, Deliverance is certainly one of the greatest novels of the second half of the 20th century. Fans of the film will find the novel every bit as riveting as its cinematic adaptation, and the book also provides a deeper insight into the characters, setting, and plot elements. Ed Gentry (the Jon Voigt character) narrates the story in the first person, which gives the reader an intimate connection to his thoughts and feelings during what develops into a very tense and harrowing experience. The course of events before and after the canoe trip is more thoroughly explored than in the film, and the reader learns a lot about the characters’ everyday lives—their occupations, their families, their everyday personalities—making it all the more compelling when they are forced to fight for those lives.
For those who have never seen the film, Deliverance is the story of four men who decide to take one last canoe trip on a soon-to-be-dammed wild river in a remote North Georgia wilderness. The adventure is more than they bargained for, however, when the party is attacked and forced to fight for their survival. Deliverance is a gripping adventure novel, but it is also an insightful examination of modern masculinity. Ed Gentry is happy to skate through a life of good-enough contentment that borders on complacency. His friend Lewis Medlock (the Burt Reynolds character), on the other hand, only feels alive when he is pushing himself to the limits of survival. Though more of an everyman realist, Ed can’t help but admire Lewis for his uncompromising machismo. For Ed, the canoe trip is his chance to embark on some sort of Lewis fantasy camp. When things get out of hand, however, what started as grown-ups at play in the wild turns deadly serious, and Ed finds himself faced with the greatest challenge of his life.
Deliverance is the best wilderness survival film ever made. Truly good wilderness adventure movies are hard to find, and the same is true for literature. Dickey may be the best wilderness adventure writer since Jack London. Reading this book gives one a visceral experience of the beauty and deadliness of the wild. Dickey makes the reader feel the woods, the river, and the rocks like few authors can. In addition, he brings a rich psychological depth to the characters that is on a par with writers like Hemingway or Steinbeck. Though the first person narrative occasionally veers into stream of consciousness, the book never succumbs to modernist excesses of verbal cleverness. The prose is taut and relevant, and the gripping story never relents.
Another unique aspect of Deliverance is that, unlike most action/adventure stories, after the life and death struggle takes place, the survivors must return to civilization and explain themselves. This adds another dimension of realism to the story that really elevates it above typical genre fiction into the realm of great literature. Author James Dickey (who played the sheriff in the movie) considered himself first and foremost a poet. He only wrote three novels, which is a shame considering how great this book is. His subsequent novels, Alnilam and To the White Sea, didn’t quite measure up to the same standard of greatness, but Deliverance will always stand as a masterpiece of modern American literature.
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