I’d watched DELIVERANCE as a kid and avoided it ever since as it was disturbing as hell. I had no idea it was based on a novel by James Dickey, which came my way when my friend John Dixon said I had to read it. So read it I did, and I’m glad I did.
It’s an almost iconic story now, but I’ll recap it anyway. Four middle-aged men decided to take a break from their comfortable but boring middle-class lives and go on a wilderness adventure riding a remote Georgia river. Along the way, it turns into a fight for survival against both men and the river itself, a horrific but purifying struggle that promises deliverance, one way or the other.
The story is fairly simple, but Dickey explores every piece of the visual scene and its psychic impression on Ed, the protagonist, with writing that can only be described as richly expressed. Dickey has a way of creating a visual scene that makes you feel like you’re standing there, including his portrayals of even minor characters and in particular the wilderness. Where he shines is in his explorations of fear and the courage to survive. “We were free and in hell,” Ed sums it up nicely at one point, and Dickey takes you every step of the way of this harrowing journey.
It’s one of the best novels about survival I’ve ever read, while being possibly the best about the male animal, particularly men struggling with middle-class malaise and midlife crisis and naturally seeking risk to feel truly alive again.