Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2122
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 without seeing their faces or hearing their screams. Deliverance presents its main character with an enemy who must be killed face-to-face, as men killed one another before modern warfare. There is a kind of joy for Ed in this combat, but he must return to Atlanta for a lifetime of remembering while he pursues the art of advertising. Dickey intimates that, after such a deliverance experience, the spiritual corrosion of civilization—designing ads for women’s underwear—will not so completely dampen Ed Gentry’s spirit as it had before.
Deliverance is an unabashedly self-reflective book. At the time that he wrote it, Dickey’s passions for archery and the guitar, which Drew plays in the novel, were well documented in magazine articles. Ed Gentry, the narrator, works in the field of advertising, where Dickey spent many successful years. With Alnilam, however, Dickey projects a persona whose similarities to himself are more metaphorical than literal. Frank Cahill is an Atlanta carpenter with a high school education who loves to build things, look at blueprints, construct an amusement park labyrinth with his bare hands, and run a swimming pool for the public. Then, in middle age, he becomes blind from diabetes. Suddenly, a man who had loved to be in the visible world, making new things appear with hammer, wood, and nails, is now closed off permanently from being that man. Cahill does not complain and listens to the doctor, who suggests that blindness, rather than killing him, can make Cahill alive in a new way. Another epigraph from David Hume suggests how this might occur: “May I not clearly and distinctly conceive that a body, falling from the clouds, and which, in all other respects, resembles snow, has yet the taste of salt or feeling of fire?”
The reader senses the test Dickey is giving himself as a writer. All characterization demands empathy, but it is more difficult to imagine what one is not than what one is. Also, Dickey is passionate about the world, and a blind narrator forces him to view it through a new dimension. Blindness, while closing off the visible, sharpens touch, smell, hearing, and, most satisfying to Cahill, memory. Cahill’s memories, whether of roller-skating all day on Atlanta streets, watching a boy fly a rubber-band-powered airplane in a park, or coming upon a waterfall during a picnic hike, become etched messages that repeatedly appear and a measure for all the unseeableness of his present world. Cahill in his blindness is a metaphor for the private consciousness to which everyone is confined, and the replays of memory allow Dickey to emphasize this point. Cahill, divorced, having never seen his son, and regretting neither the divorce nor the sonlessness, has unashamedly accepted his privacy and distance. Blinded, however, he makes a pilgrimage into the land of other selves.
With Cahill drawn in such a manner that he cannot be easily identified with the author, Dickey places him in a world very familiar to the younger Dickey: a training base for World War II pilots. Cahill’s son, Joel, a pilot trainee, has died in a crash during a forest fire in the North Carolina hills. Cahill comes to the base in his new blindness accompanied by his version of a Seeing Eye dog. Zack is not a graduate from a training school for guide dogs but part shepherd and part wolf; Cahill and a friend trained him before Cahill went blind. Zack possesses a blend of viciousness and loyalty that Cahill adores.
Mystery surrounds the death of Joel, and initially Cahill suspects foul play. Joel had been an inspiration to his fellow trainees, and a secret society developed, with Joel as the leader. Cahill’s conversations with Joel’s friends reveal the society’s name, Alnilam (the middle star of the constellation Orion’s belt), and intention: the mystical union with other young pilots across the nation leading to a destruction of all war and the means to wage war.
By novel’s end, this scheme will be revealed for what it is—high-minded but naïve youthful rebellion against authority. Yet Joel was an extraordinary young man. He innately grasped the subtleties of flying and developed a hypnotic training called “Death’s Baby Machine,” which struggling young pilots received sitting in an ordinary chair. In his mind, Cahill is able to create a psychological and physical portrait of Joel from questioning those who knew him on the base, and he realizes that giftedness mixed with unwillingness to obey rules constituted Joel’s essence. Cahill, who never saw Joel alive or made any effort to that end, can now clutch the few personal remnants of his son in his coat pockets: the pilot’s broken goggles, a burned zipper from his boot found near the crash, a piece of wire from the airplane. Cahill steadily contemplates the tangible remains while absorbing the memory fragments from the other pilots. His boy is alive in his head. Cahill, in this blitz of story and memorabilia, is learning to love, but the word does little to indicate the combination of physical impressions and the straining for meaning that come to make up Joel in Cahill’s consciousness.
Dickey’s creation of a blind character allows him to exploit his bias toward the physical. The world has never been so mediated as felt. Even when the seeing, right-hand column is being read, the experience is emphatically visceral. A bus drives away at the novel’s end: “The gears gathered, smashed and crowded, found each other; the bus straightened onto the highway.The highway came to exist in the bodies of the passengers, as the driver brought it into himself, and with it made the engine hoarse and large.”
Dickey shows that Cahill, while now blind, has never been so fully in the world, and a dead son has never been more alive for him. Joel’s Alnilam brothers show a film of their group’s arrival at the base. Cahill, privy to their secrets because of their perception of his own arrival as part of Joel’s master plan, is present at the showing and asks for a description of Joel when the projector sends out his image. Hearing of a curl of hair across the forehead, Cahill strains out of his chair in an effort to see his son. Later, taking a bath and speaking aloud of the wondrous good things there are in the world, such as a hot bath to soak in and a bottle of gin to swallow, Cahill hears Joel speak. Zack hears him as well and tears up the room. A ghost is as real and sensible as hot water. The world is full of marvels, and human beings are rich creatures both to be and to know.
This message might be a summation of what Dickey wrote fiction about. He would not leave disenchanted suburbanites amid unmitigated ennui. Deliverance claims that a man has things to prove to himself. Alnilam claims that a man is composed of more than he knows and lives in a world of presences and forces that he tends to ignore or disbelieve. In Cahill, Dickey creates a primal character, a sort of caveman, through whom Dickey as a writer can imagine all sensations anew, from the feeling of snowflakes to the taste of water. Dickey wants to go back to humanity before it was dulled by civilization, and in Deliverance and Alnilam he imagines characters who experience their basic vitality as living creatures.