James Dickey’s first two novels, Deliverance and Alnilam, were published seventeen years apart, and the chronological separation parallels the levels of difference in their content and style. Deliverance, written by Dickey when he was in his forties, is more conventional in form and more accessible to a popular readership. The reader is quickly plunged into the equivalent of an adventure story, as four middle-aged men take a canoe trip in North Georgia and a malevolent pair of mountain men force them into a primal life-or-death encounter. Alnilam, a formidably physical book of almost seven hundred pages, defies the reader in many ways, including the intermittent use of experimental double-column pages where the simultaneous narration of the blind character’s perception and the seeing narrator is developed. The blind man, Frank Cahill, is physically incapable of the more conventionally heroic feats performed by the narrator of Deliverance. This limitation of the main character seems a deliberate aim of Dickey, as he is writing a book about the delusions human beings sustain in their assumed youth and strength. Yet Dickey is also concerned with physical reality, and the task of characterizing the blind Cahill gives Dickey’s imagination a broad field of sensations to explore.
Though different in many ways, the novels share a concern with men struggling to survive. Deliverance considers the angst of middle-aged suburban males and the efforts they make to escape their civilized imprisonment while dreading the alternative of survival in the wild. Alnilam takes the he-man Cahill—a carpenter and lover of boards and nails—and, by making him become blind, places him in a wilderness of greater darkness than the North Georgia forests of Deliverance; the normal world becomes as mysterious and untrustworthy as wild nature. Both novels consider the questions quoted from David Hume in an epigraph to Alnilam: “Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition do I return? Whose favour shall I court, and whose anger must I dread? What beings surround me?”
Deliverance conjures the world of modern America in the commercial South of the 1960’s. The four male characters have jobs that are typical of this world: bottle distribution, mutual fund sales, advertising, and apartment rental. The main character, Ed Gentry, becomes increasingly aware that running an advertising agency is death in life. He admires the survivalist Lewis, who has honed his body to a muscular perfection through constant exercise and is devoted to a hypothetical future fantasy in which his physical superiority will keep him alive. Dickey is both critical and supportive of Lewis’spoint of view. He suggests there is in men a need to be tested, to be physically pitted against stress, as a daily fact of life. The modern world has eliminated this part of what it means to be human, and the restlessness of men such as Ed and Lewis to polish their survival skills and instincts indicates a real human need. The modern world has replaced the world where such skills were practiced, however, and men look ridiculous if they believe and behave as sincerely as Lewis. Thus, Lewis must manufacture his own wilderness, must find it before it is buried by developers.
Lewis discovers his dangerous place in North Georgia: a river to explore by canoe. Ed and Lewis are joined by Bobby and Drew, who are less avid but ready for a change of scene. Though the river has treacherous places and does damage to the novice canoers, it is human ugliness that is revealed to be the main danger. Two hillbillies appear to Bobby and Ed on the second day. They are repulsive, lacking teeth and manners, and they sodomize Bobby and prepare to do worse to Ed before Lewis kills one of the mountain men with an arrow through his chest. The four suburbanites are faced with a decision: Do what civilization dictates and face the local authorities, or bury “the evidence” and hope to escape. Lewis argues that survival dictates the latter, and Bobby and Ed agree. After burying the attacker and continuing down the river, Drew is shot and killed by the other hillbilly, the two canoes capsize, and the three survivors are battered by water and stones before landing in a gorge. With Lewis’s broken leg and Bobby’s general cowardice, Ed is left to scale the gorge walls and kill the sniper with his bow and arrow. The three make it to a town, ultimately escape the local law, and live to savor the next year’s damming of the river, which creates a recreational lake that hides all evidence of their experience.
Ed has been tested—a good thing, as implied by the title of the novel, but horrible. Ed has taken the blood and life of another man who had wanted his own. Had he not, he and his friends would have perished. He has also been delivered into an understanding of something disturbing about being human, about what humans carry inside them. This knowledge is good because it is truth, and nothing more. Dickey is aware that men in World War II learned to kill thousands from bombers...
(The entire section is 2122 words.)