When I was growing up in suburban California, whenever my high school baseball team had an away game in farm country north of San Francisco, as soon as we passed the first cow pasture some wiseass in the back of the bus would break out an imaginary banjo and start into the theme song from Deliverance.
This was the 1980s, so we were too young to have seen the 1972 film, and I’m sure none of us had read the classic James Dickey novel on which it was based. Still, the infamous Dueling Banjos scene from the movie was by then such a part of American pop culture that the brief banjo riff had become, for kids like us, a kind of snarky shorthand for “rural” and “backward.” Each time, the joke would spread outward from the back of the bus until half the team was picking imaginary banjos, all of us cracking up at these inbred hillbillies who would within a few hours beat the tar out of us soft suburban boys at baseball.
I thought of those long bus rides, and that banjo tune, when I recently picked up Deliverance for a book club I belong to. Weeks later, the tune is still in my head, but it has curdled into something far darker and more sinister in light of the brilliant, troubling novel that helped ingrain it into American culture.
In the book, as in the movie, four bored suburban guys from an unnamed Southern city take a weekend canoeing trip down a remote stretch of wild river slated to be dammed to make way for a reservoir. One of them, an avid outdoorsman named Lewis—played by a beefed-up Burt Reynolds in the movie—knows a little about the backcountry, but the others can barely tell a canoe paddle from a slotted spoon.
One of the more remarkable qualities of Deliverance is how much the experience of reading it mirrors that of a river trip gone horribly wrong. For the first 90 pages or so, the narrative floats merrily along as the four soft suburbanites set off on their journey into country they know nothing about on a river they have neither the skills nor the equipment to navigate. Dickey is a master at building suspense, and one feels it building, building, building, like the low roar of an upcoming rapids, as Lewis natters on about his survivalist fantasies and the narrator, Ed Gentry, a semi-successful ad man back in the city, dreams of killing his first deer with a bow and arrow.
When Deliverance was first published in 1970, before the dueling banjos and the unforgettable sight of flabby, naked Ned Beatty squealing like a pig had become cultural touchstones, readers could be forgiven for assuming that the menace the men face would come from nature—a wild bear attack, a torrential rainstorm that swamps their canoes. I am not that reader. I have seen the movie and I even read the book once before many years ago, yet still it startled me when, on page 94 of my ancient Dell paperback, two armed men step out of the forest and kidnap Ed and his flabby, hapless friend Bobby.
Until that moment, Deliverance is a well written, if somewhat talky novel about four suburban idiots on a camping trip. From that moment on, the novel is a perfectly realized parable of Southern manhood in a time of great cultural change. For 94 pages, Dickey bangs the reader over the head with how suburban life, with its wall-to-wall carpeting and shopping malls, has emasculated these four sons of the South and the fantasy they’ve built for themselves about how a weekend in one of the last remaining pockets of Southern wildness will untame them.
Then, in the blink of an eye, one of their number suffers the ultimate emasculation when he is raped at gunpoint by a pair of toothless hillbillies, and the four suburbanites return to a state of nature where they must kill or be killed. The novel’s themes of manhood and leadership and the will to survive at all costs, which Dickey has kept dammed up under endless pages of talk and rambling narrative observation, are released by the abrupt, shocking sight of a man being raped by another man—and for another taut, marvelously rendered 130 pages all the reader can do is hold on for dear life as Dickey shoots rapid after rapid in this wild, neo-Southern Gothic adventure tale.
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