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...
(The entire section is 1439 words.)