Dwight Garner has a piece in today's New York Times commemorating the fortieth anniversary of James Dickey's masterpiece, Deliverance. He writes that "the book's anniversary shouldn't slip by unnoticed." I agree.
Like many people, I discovered Dickey's brutal novel after watching John Boorman's even more brutal film version. And like many readers, I suspect that I had a hard time seeing the book clearly. I needed to get past the infamous rape scene before I could appreciate Dickey's artistry and ambition. Garner describes the book's strange power this way:
“Deliverance” is the kind of novel few serious writers attempt any longer, a book about wilderness and survival whose DNA contains shards of both “Heart of Darkness” and “Huckleberry Finn.” It tells the story of four mild, middle-class men from suburban Atlanta who embark on a canoe trip, snaking down a remote Georgia river that will soon disappear beneath a dam. In the woods they find boiling rapids and two sinister mountain men. Before the novel is over, the carnage is nearly complete: three men have been crudely buried, one has been raped, and the survivors have had the bark peeled from their modern sensibilities.
It doesn't surprise me that Dickey has fallen out of literary fashion; as an outsized personality concerned with elemental questions of good and evil, he is easy to dismiss as a stereotype—"a deep-fried Norman Mailer," in Garner's words. But I suspect that most of Dickey's critics are concocting flimsy excuses not to take his novel seriously. "Deliverance" remains a deeply disturbing work and most of us would rather not be disturbed. Which was exactly Dickey's point.