Review: Deliverance by James Dickey

You aren’t hallucinating.  This is not a science fiction book review.  This is indeed a review of the novel Deliverance.  Yep, THAT Deliverance.  The one with white water canoeing, banjo playin’, hillbillies, and . . . man on man rape.  Yep, I just went there because that’s where it went.  I’m trying to mix things up with my reading as well as the content of this site that haunts the cobwebbed and shadowed corner of the Interwebs.  Thus this review.  So expect a bit more diversity (not a lot) in my postings in the future.

I’ve been a fan of the film for decades and have always been curious about James Dickey’s novel.  I have no intention of reviewing the film here, but I do have a review of the film that I wrote 15 years ago that I will soon post as a compare/contrast to the novel, as well as to see how I felt about it those years ago.  My fundamental curiosities in reading Deliverance were:  How close is the movie compared to the novel, and vice versa?  There’s very little character development in the movie, but is there more so in the novel?  Are there aspects to the book that were too questionable for inclusion in a Hollywood movie?  Now that I’ve read through Deliverance, all of my curiosities have been sated.  And I’ll pass my findings on to you, my devoted readers . . . all two of you!

Deliverance is exactly what you expect and exactly what you’ve heard.  It’s not a long novel, but it does possess a slow burn quality, lulling the reader into a sense of bored complacency as Ed’s life is laid out before you, as the characters make their relaxing way down the river . . . then hitting you square in the face with a 2 x 4 of visceral adventure and brutality.  Lewis and Ed are the two main characters, and stand in stark contrast to one another.   Lewis is the larger-than-life, type A character who never met a challenge he didn’t like or conquer.  As you can glean from watching the movie the novel is visualized from the perspective of Ed.  This is reinforced by the fact that the novel is told in the first person from Ed’s perspective and goes much deeper into his psyche.  Ed is the meager, mild-mannered man who is bored with his life and career.   One disappointing aspect of Deliverance is that the two other characters, Bobby and Drew, feel a bit like throw away “everymen” . . .  just Schmoes along for the adventure.  Their existence seems to be included for two reasons:  to get sodomized and to get killed, respectively.  We know next to nothing about them and this trivializes the horror Bobby endures and the ultimate sacrifice Drew endures.  What happens to them is diminished and can only be felt through the other characters.  Where the film jumps right into the action with them arriving directly in hillbilly heaven, the book spends 50 pages, nearly 20% of the book, developing the characters of Lewis and Ed.  Sadly Bobby and Drew are left out.

Deliverance by James DickeyThe setting is the Georgia wilderness, where the state’s most remote white water river awaits.  In the thundering froth of that river, in its steep , echoing stone canyons, four men on a canoe trip discover a freedom and exhilaration beyond compare.  And then in a moment of horror, the adventure turns into a struggle for survival as one man becomes a human hunter who is offered his own harrowing Deliverance.

Deliverance by James Dickey
Series:  None
Genre:  Thriller / Survival

Awards:  None
Media:  Book, paperback, 278 pages
Cover Art:  Grant Taylor (this edition)
Year: 1970
4 out of 5 stars

Transformations happen after their incident with the hillbillies.  Lewis is transformed from a confident leader into a broken man.  Ed is transformed from a mild-mannered follower into a stalking murderer.  Ed’s inner debate and true transformation isn’t captured in the film.  He begins to enjoy the exhilaration of the hunt.  He begins to love the physical challenges placed before him.  The physical injuries to his body make him feel alive and reinvigorated.  He’s transforming into Lewis.  Not out of choice, but out of necessity.  Out of survival.  Quoting Lewis from the beginning of the novel:  “Survival depends — well, it depends on having to survive. The kind of life I’m talking about depends on its being the last chance. The very last of all.”

James Dickey uses masterful and efficient prose to drop you into the mottled shade of vibrant green forests; into the surging and swelling rapids of the snake-infested Cahulawassee River; onto the side of a sheer cliff feeling the day’s warmth against your cheek as you hold on for dear life; before the hillbilly you just murdered, watching his life bleed out onto your shoes; standing in the cold water as it caresses your legs, tying rocks to the body of your dead friend to hide your secret forever . . . to hide everything, including your memories, under millions of tons of rising dam water.  Dickey paints a picture with his words, and it’s one reason why the book-to-film translation works so well.  Aside from the first 50 pages of Ed and Lewis character development, the film is very faithful to the novel.  If you’re satisfied with the film and have no interest in Ed’s and Lewis’ back story, there’s really no reason to read Deliverance.  Yet if you’re familiar with the film it’s still a very wild ride of a read.

In the end, Deliverance is a story about a lifeless and meek man (Ed) who revels in the violence and pain, coming out stronger on the other end.  A story about a larger-than-life man (Lewis) whose wings are clipped and brought back to Earth.  A story about an everyman (Bobby) who suffers a humiliation worthy of murder.  And a story about a righteous man (Drew) who pays the ultimate price for all their sins.

It’s a story about survival before survival stories were a thing.  Deliverance.

Images & Words © 2015-2023, Neal Ulen.
Other images/videos cited © to their respective owner(s).

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