Modern Library Revue: #42 Deliverance

November 25, 2009 | 4 books mentioned 14 4 min read

I have seriously mixed feelings about this book.  First off, it is part of the group of post-war novels by/about American men who are peeved because getting old is boring and their wives aren’t very sexy.  Please forgive my bawdy language, but let’s call them the My Dick novels, with major sub-genres My Dick is Great and  I Feel Bad About my Dick.   I used to read these without discrimination, but one day the veil fell from my eyes and I realized that these books could bring about a serious crisis of self-esteem for me, a lady who loves a man.  One doesn’t need constant reminders that one’s significant other will stare in horror at one’s posterior fifteen years from now, and try to do it with the underaged person responsible for looking after the children for whom, theoretically, one will have compromised one’s parts in order to expel.  Nor does one need to be told that, even if you should have the marvelous good fortune to keep your libido and your teeth and your satin skin and sense of humor, it won’t make a whit of difference, as the man in your life will be pulled inexorably toward sex with teens.  I don’t care if these accounts are based on life’s hard facts, and are therefore imbued with a verisimilitude that some say makes art great.  Some things are just tedious after the hundredth time.

I’m told that women get increasingly humorless as well as physically repulsive as the years go by, but I like these novels if they are really funny.  The Water-Method Man, for example, is one my favorite novels, although John Irving is an important figure in the My Dick movement.

coverDeliverance by James Dickey, though, is the opposite of funny.  The leather vest that Burt Reynolds is wearing on the cover of my copy is funny, but that is the only thing.  Most people are familiar with the storyline, immortalized as it was by Reynolds and said vest.  For those of you who haven’t heard the twang of dueling banjos, here’s what happens: the narrator has three friends, one of whom is very muscular (he’s the narrator’s favorite).  The narrator also wants to fondle the girl who is a model at his ad agency and has a golden eye or something.  The narrator and his three friends decide to go canoeing on a river without a map or a clue; they pack some beers and bows and arrows (naturally) and hit the road.  It’s all very sinister from the get-go.

Then they’re on the river, and terrifying rednecks (who have done more toward furthering redneck discrimination than any other rednecks in art), rape one of them.  The rednecks are about to assault the narrator, but the muscled one, Lewis, shoots one of them through the chest with an arrow.  The other redneck gets away and hides, kills one of the friends, Lewis breaks his leg, and then it’s up to the narrator to stop being such a soft-living, house-having nancy all the time and find that bastard and kill him with his primal man essence.  Which he does, after some feats of strength and things that sound like they hurt a lot.

All of this is told in a self-consciously poetic way, as if the author wrote it while sitting behind a duck blind with a camouflaged typewriter, looking at a picture of Walt Whitman and listening to Wagner.  Sometimes I was (very marginally) enjoying it and sometimes I was thinking that if I must read about scary, disgusting things I’d rather get my copy of The Stand out from under the bed and at least have a good time.  Then I wouldn’t have to read sentences like this one: “The standing there was so good, so fresh and various and continuous, so vital and uncaring around my genitals, that I hated to leave it.”  Good grief.

Why is this book one of the best books of the century?  Why, Modern Library? Really, the more I think about it the more I think it’s less “mixed feelings” I have about it than “fierce loathing.”

My main complaint is this:  Bobby has been raped, Lewis the muscled one has killed the redneck, and they’re all four standing around talking about what to do, and the narrator goes ahead and says:

I moved away from Bobby’s red face.  None of this was his fault, but he felt tainted to me.  I remembered how he had looked over the log, how willing to let anything be done to him, and how high his voice was when he screamed.

What a super attitude to have about your friend who was sexually assaulted at gunpoint!  Ecce homo! Basically the narrator is feeling pretty smug about not being the one to get “cornholed” (his charming term), and about the fact that dreamy Lewis was put out of commission and it was up to him to save the day!  I’m not one of those literal-minded turds who thinks Lolita or, I don’t know, The Collector, are offensive, because I understand that you can write about things and not do them or think them yourself.  It is not the novelist’s job to provide an edifying story or a lovable narrator. However, not only was I pretty lukewarm about the alleged Everyman of Deliverance, the writing style did not, for me, elevate things in any meaningful way.

It felt like a missed opportunity, in a sense.  A novelist could use a moment like this to provide a neat example of how rape culture and victim-shaming hurt everyone, men and women alike.  I mean, the narrator’s basic position on the issues is that sexual assault victims are embarrassing and gross, and the best thing to do is to a) shun them and b) kill everyone.  There’s a lot of pithy stuff there.

I’m likely missing something.  I think there is something zeitgeisty happening in the novel, something to which I’m not privy.  Maybe it’s a generational thing.  Maybe it’s a Vietnam thing.  Obviously, it’s a dick(ey) thing.

On that note, Happy Thanksgiving.

is a contributing editor at The Millions and the author of The Golden State. You can read more of her writing at


  1. Thank you so much for such an intelligent review. I could not possibly agree more with you assessment. I was really quite surprised that Modern Library included this on its list of the century. I was left wondering if it had something to do with Dickey’s reputation as a poet. This is probably my least favorite novel on the list.

  2. I’m with you up until the end where you say that Dickey missed an opportunity to “provide a neat example of how rape culture and victim-shaming hurt everyone, men and women alike. ” This seems like a pretty unfair claim, a bit like saying Nabokov — since you brought it up — missed a chance to teach us about child abuse. Providing a “neat” example of anything is not the goal novels. And Dickey’s novel in particular is clearly centered more around exploring fantasies of modern male (im)potency, by which the rape scene serves as a literalization of the struggle for power and domination. Whether it’s a great book is highly doubtful. I completely understand why you would recoil from Dickey’s hillbilly take on the worst parts of Nietzsche. But misreading the book on account of what it’s not isn’t fair either.

  3. The main theme of the novel is the conflict between “cultures of honor” and “cultures of law” which is at the heart of American history. It defined the Civil War, and defines northern and southern culture to this day – although these cultures are no longer strictly defined by geography. Dickey’s novel is a fable and captures the inherent American divide better than any work of art I know of. One can find this type of writing from `The Last of the Mohicans` to `The Road`, but I think `Deliverance` does it best. One could interpret it from a gender perspective, but I think you would just find confusion and dead ends, it’s not really a novel about gender.

  4. Greg, you’ve made a very fair point, and i completely agree; the author isn’t obligated to do any such thing, and i shouldn’t have phrased it that way. I guess what i meant is that the pith of Dickey’s storyline, “exploring fantasies of modern male (im)potency,” as you say, seems wasted with his treatment of the rape and all the subsequent he-man action. the writing didn’t carry his themes (and i am not even sure i would like where it would carry them, if it could. that’s a me thing, though, not a dickey thing).

    Steve, I see what you’re saying, and that’s an interesting way of looking at it. However, I think your dead wrong saying it’s not really a novel about gender. “Male” is a gender. Maybe you think i’m only talking about women here. This book is chock-ful of purported male stuff; i’d say it’s a crucial aspect of the book (cf Greg, “male (im)potency.”

    And what you’re talking about, the dichotomy between “cultures of honor” and “cultures of law” (neat point, by the way) are wholly tied up with gender. Sorry to get all Women’s Studies 101, but in either culture, in any of the books you cite, you’re talking about a patriarchy. If reading Deliverance for its take on gender leads to “confusion and dead ends,” it’s because the author fails to engage the subject in a meaningful way (emphasis on meaningful; I definitely think the author engages, i just think it’s throw-away).

    sorry for these lunch-break responses. i appreciate the comments.

  5. I laughed out loud at some of the lines in this well-written piece. Thanks. But I also have a question. It’s been years since I’ve read the nove, but I recall a sex scene between the narrator and his wife near the beginning, a scene in which the narrator lyrically rhapsodizes about his wife’s erotic power over him. That scene makes me think of the book as something other than one of those in which men “are peeved because getting old is boring and their wives aren’t very sexy.” Am I misremembering this part of the book?

  6. Thanks, Frank! It’s now been a little while since I read this novel, as well, but yes, there is a steamy interlude between the narrator and his wife. But as I also recall, he still takes out the model after the big adventure (i could be wrong about this, but that’s how i remember it). it sort of falls into the second category i describe; even if the wife stays foxy, the man shall stray.

  7. Oh, but without Deliverance, and the movie it became, we might not have “Squeal like a pig, boy!” to say whenever we joke about anal rape! Then what would we say?

  8. You’re right, Anony, but I’m sure we would have soon found some other riotous way to further the “rape is funny” trope!

  9. Gees, that first paragraph is some of the most sexist stuff I’ve ever read. If women just allow their husbands to do that to them in later marriage… the fault is on both of them. Not all men are, “my penis, my dick,” so, come on… haha.

  10. This discussion has been most interesting, but I still do not buy into the notion of “cultures of honor” in Deliverance. This has been done, and done better, by none other than Faulkner. Absalom, Absalom! is a prime example. The dynamic dreams of Thomas Sutpen go up in smoke during and in the aftermath of the Civil War, and is killed by Wash Jones, for the dishonor brought on his family.

    If anything, rural vs urban may be a better theme for the book, as well as man vs nature and man vs man. But these have also been covered, and by better writers. Jack London comes to mind–his books, from what I remember, are better than anything Dickey wrote–certainly more entertaining. And from what I remember, more successful.

    There certainly have been other tours, by boat and other watercraft, into the “heart of darkness.” This has been covered many times, much more successfully, than Deliverance. I’d much rather be on the raft with Huck Finn and Jim, escaping their slave-holding “sivilization”, or on the boat into the darkest heart of Africa searching for Mr. Kurz. There are even a couple films with these tropes that work more successfully–Fitzcarraldo, for one. Aguirre, the Wrath of God, for another.

    I also wanted to point out that American men are not the only ones who find “getting older is boring and their wives aren’t very sexy.” Told from the female point of view, Fumiko Enchi’s The Waiting Years makes this point in Japanese culture as well. (Enchi was unfairly overlooked by the Nobel committee during her lifetime; she deserved to be a laureate–she really is that good.) I hope that a brief quote from the Waiting Years will show just how much better a writer she was than Dickey: “Tomo got up to go, with a sidelong view as she did so of Ono’s short frame straining over the go board that he was carrying out to the center of the room. She was thirty, and the fact that her husband, whose eyes tonight had an intensity that gave him a new appeal, should make no move towards her tormented her spiritually and physically all the more after a separation of three months. Whether the torment that seethed within her was love or hatred she could not tell, but a calm determination not to leave the crucible of doubt gave her features the tranquility of a No mask in her unhurried progress along the corridor.”

    Enchi’s psychological penetration is much deeper and more acute than anything that Dickey could write (as evidenced by the quotes above). Faulkner wrote Art. Enchi wrote Art. Conrad wrote Art. London attempted to write art, but largely unsuccessful. Dickey wrote a thriller. Maybe it’s a better than average thriller, but it is still a thriller.

  11. Lyidia Keisling, I just have to send you the smooshiest loveletter. I’ve been reading your reviews here, and just have to say, your wit, candor, and literary brought me back to reading. I finally feel un-stuck from the reverent hyperbole and pissing down from a great height that characterizes so much (even, for other reasons also worthwhile) lit crit. Just amazing. My hat’s off to you! .

  12. (er, literary insight that is. Nobody can seriously fault you for lack of scholarship, as people can with candid love-hate and whyso reviews that merely register reactive sentiment.)

  13. Lydia,

    I think Deliverance is more complex book than you give it credit for being in this rather facile review. If nothing else, there is a tremendous amount of homoeroticism in Deliverance that is obviously (to me) intentional on the part of Dickey. Not just in terms of the redneck rape–the narrator, Ed, is manifestly in love with Lewis, and with Lewis’s body (check out the paragraph where he rhapsodizes about Lewis’s physique and how the reward for all of Lewis’s hard work “was in [Ed’s] eyes.”

    To miss this is to miss the fact that Ed’s subsequent assault on Mt. Homo and the spectral remaining redneck assailant are clearly motivated by fear of his own latent homosexuality and a need to “straighten” things out, pun very intended. I don’t think this stuff requires a very deep reading of the book either, or is giving Dickey too much credit–the narrative is very deliberately set up to make ambiguous whether any of Ed’s compensatory efforts are, in fact, necessary or justified (speaking here about the ambiguity of Drew’s death, as well as the identity of Ed’s victim on the cliff top).

    A shorter version would be that Ed is intended as an unreliable narrator, the book is meant to question the machismo you deride in it, and I think you missed those points pretty badly. On the bad poetry of a lot of the writing, however, we are in full agreement.

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