Alnilam was Dickey’s first novel since the highly acclaimed Deliverance (1987). Unlike his first novel, which was a straightforward, macho tale of four innocent people forced to confront their killer instincts in the wild, Alnilam was poetic, intricate, laced heavily with symbolism and given to visionary idealism. It was also less dramatic and less accessible to the reader. Yet Alnilam and Deliverance, while different in stylistic approach, plots, and characters, are remarkably similar in philosophy. The heroes in both novels come to an enlightened understanding of themselves through their remarkable experiences and move away from their meaningless lives.
Dickey exhibits a consistency in his writings. Years earlier, he wrote a poem stating that a man would never see until he either went blind or, like the mythical hunter Orion, became a part of the stars and light. Dickey’s major character in Alnilam, Cahill, fulfills that earlier poetic prophecy. Cahill, recently blind, achieves his own glorious transformation by searching for the truth about his son. In his struggle with himself and the strange world he is visiting, Cahill becomes like the warrior-hunter Orion, with his faithful companion Zack symbolizing the dog Sirius.
In his work, Dickey was always intoxicated with the power of language. In Alnilam, he uses that power to do for air what Melville achieved with water in Moby Dick: Or, The Whale (1851). For Dickey, air is more fundamental to human existence than water. He examines the kind of emotional state humans achieve when flying. His aim is to show how the human body reacts to leaving the ground. His passages on flying, the importance of flight, and aerial combat are easily the best parts of the book.
Dickey attempted to break new ground in fiction with Alnilam but was only partially successful. Critics complained that the novel was far too long, overblown, and pretentious and was marred by slow pacing. Although the book is ostensibly a mystery, it is shaped less by plot than by poetic impulses. At his best, however, Dickey creates vivid characters, especially Southerners, and is able to create a richly detailed picture of a region.