On the 40th Anniversary of ‘Deliverance’, it’s Time to Give a Genius his Due
This year marks the 40th anniversary of James Dickey’s novel, Deliverance (the movie, directed by John Boorman, came out two years later). Even if you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, you’re probably familiar with their themes and highlights, etched as they are in our cultural memory.
If you heard the song “Dueling Banjos” for example, you’d probably know it was in the movie. Or if someone slipped the term “squeal like a pig” into conversation, you’d get the allusion (and you might also decide to cut the chat short).
But beyond its piecemeal resonance, Deliverance is an important book for meatier reasons—most notably that it’s a no-holds-barred disclosure of the male psyche. On that count, it’s right up there with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and virtually no book involving strong themes of male psychology has been written since Deliverance that doesn’t in some way bow to the master.
Dickey was a rough-hewn genius obsessed with what makes a man, and Deliverance is his archetypal opus. Each of the four main characters is one dimension of Dickey’s conception of the male psyche: a gregarious but arrogant salesman; a practical but visionless businessman; a creative but ungrounded artist; and a strong but reckless survivor with a blue collar mindset.
Everything these characters endure in the course of the story is calculated to put their natural tendencies at odds with circumstance. Dickey places them in lawless nature so they can’t rely on civilized conventions. He chooses sexual violation as the catalyst to set the archetypes in motion, and then casts a fog of moral ambiguity over every decision they make. Is murder justified? When is it justified? Is not disclosing murder justified? Is it better to disclose anything or internalize it all and move on?
Highest among the themes Dickey tackles is domination, both physical and psychological, and both external and internal. The sadistic hillbillies present the threat of external domination, but that’s almost ancillary to the power dynamic waged between the strongest of the archetypes (the role in the movie that made Burt Reynolds a megastar) and the others.
This is where Dickey’s genius really shines. In the violent chaos of the story, where any decision could end a life, personality consensus is not an option. Someone is going to overpower the others and make definitive decisions, and those decisions will permanently change the others for better or worse.
I have a sense that Dickey had a bit of perverse fun with this theme; at times an especially morbid brand of dark humor slips in just a little—not enough to take over the story, but enough to be noticed. Things like that make me wonder if in person Dickey was the sort of brilliant scheming jokester that everyone likes being around but almost no one trusts.
I’m also tempted to call Dickey a prophet of things to come, though I’m sure he never thought of himself that way. Ever since 9/11, I haven’t been able to shake the idea that you can overlay Dickey’s archetypal tension on those who made subsequent decisions and find some disturbing parallels. The U.S. is violently attacked by external forces, setting in motion a chain of events each spawning life and death decisions. Our leaders say we must kill those responsible, and we agree—in this instance, murder is justified. People who would do something so horrible have no right to live.
But George Bush, whose personality matrix is dominated by the quick-to-decide survivor, pushes the question beyond those limits by arguing that not only is that murder justified, but so is another by virtue of a relationship with those who assaulted us. Not only that, argues the survivor, but if we fail to kill them, they will no doubt kill us. The debate is sparked, but it doesn’t last long. Someone is going to dominate and irrevocably change everyone else.
I realize you can only push the parallels so far, but my point is that the same tensions that played out within and around Bush and others in the administration can be understood in the light of Dickey’s brilliance. That is, of course, just one way of looking at it. But the mere fact that solid lines can be drawn from Dickey’s words to events with real consequences—all so far removed from his book—testifies to rare insight into human nature, and male psychology in particular.
For all of the reasons mentioned, and many more, Deliverance is one of the most important books of the last 50 years, and James Dickey may well be one of the most undervalued deconstructors of the male psyche in literary history. On the 40th anniversary of his masterpiece, I raise a glass to his talent and hope that all the writers who have benefited by his influence will take a moment to do the same. Cheers.