In this novel, four businessmen taking a weekend canoe trip down the untamed Cahulawassee River battle both nature and hill people in “kill-or-be-killed” situations. In lean prose, Dickey graphically details such incidents as a man being savagely sodomized at gunpoint, threats of castration, the sexual overtones of the death climb up a cliff, and the earthy epithets of men stalking and killing others.
The 1970 novel became popular with school-age readers after release of the highly successful 1972 film version, featuring Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight. However, in challenges occurring in Maryland and Virginia schools, the book was found “obscene.” In Drake, North Dakota, in the 1970’s, the book became part of a much-publicized book- burning and teacher-dismissal case.
The American Booksellers Association has cited two reasons for the frequent bannings of Deliverance in public schools and libraries: its inappropriate themes for the young and its objectionable language. Challengers have deemed the book inappropriate because of its relentless and unnerving violence, depicting how decent men under pressure can revert to primal behavior. Challengers have also questioned the loose morality of the book’s conclusion: The survivors find deliverance back in the civilized world, unrepentant and unpunished after killing several men, disposing of their bodies, and lying repeatedly to the law.
Lewis Medlock, Ed Gentry, Drew Ballinger, and Bobby Trippe decide to canoe a river in north Georgia before it is dammed. Lewis promises them an enjoyable time away from the pressures and routines of the city. The four men spend September 14 on the river and have the type of day that Lewis promised. The next morning Ed agrees to take Bobby in his canoe because Lewis is frustrated with Bobby’s ineptness and weakness.
Ed and Bobby stop to rest on the bank since they are tired and, ironically, are well ahead of Lewis and Drew. Two men step out of the woods, one of them trailing a shotgun by the barrel. The taller man seems to be toothless, and the shorter man has white stubble on his face and a stomach that falls through his overalls. In an attempt to pacify these mountain men, Ed tells them that he and Bobby are not government agents looking for a still and would even be interested in buying some moonshine from them if they have it. This comment seems to set something in motion for the mountain men, and they take Ed and Bobby at gunpoint deeper into the woods. The tall, lean man ties Ed to a tree with Ed’s own belt and then turns to Bobby. While the tall man holds the gun, the white-bearded man sodomizes Bobby. They turn then to Ed and decide that he will perform oral sex on the tall man. As they exchange the gun an arrow appears in the middle of the tall man’s chest. Lewis and Drew arrived upon the scene quietly, hearing Bobby’s screams, and Lewis had drawn his bow on the tall man and waited for an opportunity to let the arrow fly. The tall man dies, and the white-bearded man runs off into the woods and disappears. Drew wants to take the body to the sheriff, but Lewis wants to bury it in the woods because the area will be covered with water soon. The men vote with Ed because they think his way is the least complicated for their present and future lives. They bury the man and the shotgun deep in the...
Deliverance, Dickey’s first novel, is a survivalist adventure story which quickly became a best seller, then a popular film directed by John Boorman and starring Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight. Dickey turned his interest in hunting and the outdoors into a suspenseful narrative that pits the four main characters not only against a wild river in north Georgia but also against several savage mountain men who prowl the wilderness along the river banks.
The novel’s two epigraphs are much to the point of the events that follow. The first, from the modern French writer Georges Bataille, translates as “there exists at the base of human life a principle of insufficiency.” The second is from the Old Testament prophet Obadiah:“The pride of thine heart hath deceived thee,/ thou that dwellest in the clefts of the rock,/ whose habitation is high; that saith in his heart,/ Who shall bring me down to the ground?”
Bataille’s observation explains well the urge that sends these comfortable professional men from Atlanta off on an arduous challenge to their bodies and their spirits. The ringleader is Lewis Medlock, a fitness guru and devotee of outdoor sports, whose mantra is being ever-ready to match himself against some grueling physical challenge. Professing his uncompromising ethic of survival, Lewis puts his philosophy to the test by cajoling others to join him on the trip. The narrator is his friend, Ed Gentry, an advertising agency executive who begins the trip as more or less Lewis’s second in command. Lewis and Ed are accompanied by Drew Ballinger, a sales manager for a soft drink distributor, and Bobby Trippe, a mutual funds salesman.
The trip these four men take down the treacherous Cahulawassee River has the features of an archetypal journey fraught with hazards of nature and human evil, and it is a modern masterpiece of this genre. The novel also inverts the genre, however, in the sense that these men do not have to make such a perilous journey. Their adventure is a typical suburbanite vision of a weekend expedition to shore up their sense of virility, which instead turns into a nightmare. Looking for a deliverance from the ennui of modern city life, ironically the four men drive away from home in modern automobiles and then set themselves the task of getting home using the most difficult way possible. When it is all over, the decent Drew is dead, his body submerged under tons of water. Bobby, the least equipped of the four for the strains of the mythical outdoors, has been sodomized and permanently embittered. Lewis begins by playing the role he was born for, saving Bobby and Ed’s lives from sexual predators with an arrow straight into the heart of one of the assailants. Lewis relishes the tense existential drama for which he has prepared himself through such a long novitiate but, in another ironic turn, suffers a crippling fracture in a canoe crash on the same rapids where Drew loses his life. It is then that Ed—the narrator, the skeptic, the apprentice—takes on Lewis’s responsibilities and—killing a man who hunts for them—accomplishes his initiation triumphantly. Yet the question remains: From what has Ed been delivered?
Deliverance is tightly plotted and structured in three main sections of roughly equal length. A brief “Before” section introduces the characters and the dominant theme of survivalist ethos cultivated in the midst of modern civilization. The first day of the journey is narrated in “September 14th,” and it takes the...