James Dickey – Deliverance

James Dickey – Deliverance

As a long term project, I am slowly winding my way through the Modern Library’s highly subjective list of the 100 best novels. This entry was on sale for five dollars on Audible, so I took the plunge. I had previously seen the movie, but didn’t much care for it. Many years ago I also once went rafting on the same river where the movie was filmed, and didn’t much care for that. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the book wasn’t really to my taste, either.

The reason is likely that Deliverance is essentially sturm und drang that doesn’t let up. Angst and guilt are constant presences, but there isn’t a reason given for why that should be. They’re simply background conditions woven into the fabric of the book’s world. A good story contains both tension and release; this story has too much of one and too little of the other. Whereas I tend to prefer literature, music, and art that contain both light and shade, Deliverance is essentially monochrome.

As for the story, a rafting trip in rural Georgia among four city-dwelling friends goes about as wrong as it possibly can. The characters variously endure being brutally raped by a hillbilly, a broken leg, an arrow wound, and a drowning. The protagonists also kill two people, perhaps justifiably and perhaps not–the ambiguity is easily the most interesting part of the book.

Afterwards the three survivors create a cover story, wrestle with guilt, and arouse some suspicion among wary locals, but aren’t caught. The river basin they went through is dammed and flooded as part of a federal infrastructure project, destroying any evidence, as well as their friend’s body. Back in Atlanta, they go on with their lives as best they can, but never quite return to normal. Two of them ending up buying rural cabins near the area where it all happened. This unsatisfying ending, with no release for the built-up tension, is in direct, and probably intentional, contradiction to Deliverance‘s title.

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