Deliverance by James Dickey

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Anyone who has spent a night or two in the wilderness knows that there is always a potential for danger. Most likely nothing too bad will happen—but you know that it could. James Dickey’s “Deliverance” actualizes that potential for danger, and evil, with impressive force. Published in 1970 and set in the American South, it concerns four city men who go on a canoe trip in the wilds of Georgia. Their weekend adventure plunges harrowingly into the very heart of darkness.

The book’s first-person narrator is Ed Gentry. Early on, one gathers that he is undergoing a crisis of some sort; probably of the mid-life variety. His three companions are Lewis Medlock, a likable but fanatic survivalist who thrives on danger; Bobby Trippe, a superficially pleasant fellow whose nature is not inclined to roughing it; and Drew Ballinger, a law-abiding and musically talented family man.

The rape-episode in “Deliverance” has gained notoriety in popular culture via the deservedly acclaimed film adaptation. But the protagonists have more to contend with than that alone. The river itself becomes an extreme menace; and when the men decide, in a three-to-one vote, to cover up the entire incident in which they’ve become embroiled, they run the risk of facing murder charges. The narrative also includes an uncertainty element, as when Ed is constrained to kill a man who may or may not be the enemy.

Not to be overlooked is the untamed beauty of the setting, a quality that is present in both the book and the film. The latter effectively captures the ringing calls of birds, the buzz of insects, the croaks of frogs and the constant thunder of foaming rapids. The book depicts these wilderness wonders with even greater clarity, as when an owl perches on Ed’s tent intermittently during the first night. Or there is the following nighttime description of the river:

‘It was the most glorious thing I have ever seen. But it was not seeing, really. For once it was not just seeing. It was beholding. I beheld the river in its icy pit of brightness, in its far-below sound and indifference, in its large coil and tiny points and flashes of the moon, in its long sinuous form…’

The book is not without flaws, however. At times it is too chatty, and a few of the details seem implausible. Worse still is Ed’s hardhearted, contemptuous regard for Bobby, the victim of rape. On the other hand, Ed’s most redeeming trait is his consistent respect for Drew, whose decency he never disparages.

There are moments in “Deliverance”, especially in its darkest places, that seem almost too real. It is as if you are reading about something that actually happened to the author, to James Dickey. But I trust that it did not happen, that it is not a true account of an appalling incident disguised as a piece of fiction.