Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Dickey delivers

Rarely can poets make a living writing poetry. Edgar Allan Poe wrote short stories and edited literary magazines, but still lived in poverty. Carl Sandburg wrote a popular three-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln to pay the bills. Many modern poets teach either literature or creative writing classes. James Dickey (1923-1997) wrote one of the best thrillers of the 1970s, Deliverance.

Earlier Dickey taught composition at Rice and wrote copy for an advertising agency. Of the latter he once said, "I was selling my soul to the devil all day ... And trying to buy it back at night." Dickey later used his experiences in advertising to create the character of Ed Gentry, the narrator of Deliverance.

Ed, an advertising artist,  is one of four city men who decide to canoe down a wild Georgia river before it is dammed and turned into a lake. Except for the macho Lewis, the men lack outdoor skills, although Ed has some experience with a bow. Yet when he has a chance to shoot a deer, he fails to make the kill.

Their canoe trip turns violent when when two backwoodsmen sexually assault Bobby and Ed. The assault is interrupted when Lewis sneaks up and kills one of the men with an arrow, while the other escapes. Drew argues they should report the assault to the authorities, but Lewis convinces the others that would be a mistake. They decide to bury the body and continue down the river.

Later Drew and Lewis fall out of their canoe in the rapids. Lewis breaks his leg and insists Drew was shot. (His body is later found, but even then they can't tell if he was shot or not.) In case there is a sniper on the cliff, Ed climbs it during the night and, at morning light, kills a man with his bow, although injuring himself in the process. Is the dead man one of those who assaulted them or just an innocent hunter? Moral ambiguity fills this powerful story, and it is the one thing, Ed finds, from which there is no deliverance.

I returned to Dickey's novel after an absence of more than 40 years and found its impact just as powerful as it was back in the early 1970s. It really doesn't read like the work of a poet just trying to make a buck.

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