What We’re Reading: Deliverance … again
Posted by on May 8, 2014

So I was cleaning out my long-neglected bookshelves, acres of dust fluffing upward each time I scooped out an armful of books. I came across a brittle, coverless copy of Deliverance, James Dickey’s classic 1970 novel of soft-belly suburbia encountering the rural wilds of North Georgia (and its tight-knit clan of alien inhabitants) on a canoe trip down the rapids of a river on its way to being dammed.

On a whim, I picked up the book. Couldn’t put it down. On their trip down the (fictional) Cahulawassee River, the four men enter the proverbial heart of darkness (Yes, Conrad is said to have been an influence). They think they’re on an adventure, a suburban lark. They find, not too far into it, that they’re in water too deep and wild to control. Then, violence, death, and unsettled reckoning. The novel, dated in some ways, holds up after 40-plus years:

“The river opened up and was there. It was gray-green and very clear and yet with a certain milkiness too; it looked as though it would turn white and foam at rocks more easily than other water …

“’There she is,’ Lewis said, still looking straight ahead.”


Dickey’s slender book riled some southerners, among them, U.S. Sen. Zell Miller (D-GA), who took umbrage at its “portrait of mountain people as toothless sociopaths.” This, according to a New York Times Book Review celebration of the novel’s 40th anniversary.

But as I read through this time, maybe the first time since college, I saw it, weird and ever strange, as an eco-novel, maybe among the first. (Ecotopia was still five years away. Earth Day began that year, hardly an inspiration for literature). The whole trip, I thought this time through, is a white-water churn of a metaphor for Don’t Mess with Blessed Mother Nature – or She Will Turn on You.

The eco-metaphor begins before canoe ever touches water. Lewis, the canoeing-clan leader, has been bit by the bug of navigating (read: controlling) the wilds of the Cahulawassee before it’s gone:

“’All this in here will be blue. The dam at Aintry has already been started, and when it’s finished next spring the river will back up fast. This whole valley will be under water. But right now, it’s wild. And I mean wild….’

“I … (imagined) the nighttime rising of dammed water bringing a new lake up with its choice lots, its marinas and beer cans, and also trying to visualize the land as Lewis said it was at that moment, unvisited and free.”

So … did Dickey think of his unexpected hit of a novel as an eco-effort? Don’t know. Couldn’t find out through searching. The only clue is a brief quote in a 1976 Paris Review interview: “There’s also an enormous element of luck in it. I wrote the right book at the right time.”

Maybe, in fact, timing is everything. As The NYT’s Garner so aptly put it: “In its elegiac lament for a disappearing river, the book chimed along with America’s budding environmental movement.”

But … I don’t remember the Burt Reynolds movie version painting it that way. Hmmm. Grab it from the bowels of your bookcase.

Post by Mary Ann Hogan

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  • Photo by Tyler Malone