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ALNILAM by James Dickey

ALNILAM

By James Dickey

Pub Date: June 5th, 1987
ISBN: 1558170863
Publisher: Doubleday

In Dickey's first novel since Deliverance (1970), Frank Cahill, who owns and runs a public swimming pool in Atlanta before WW II, goes blind from a raging case of diabetes. The insult is great, but greater still is news of the death of his son Joel (a child Cahill never knew) in an Air Corps training crash. So Cahill journeys with his dog Zack to the Air Corps base in North Carolina, where he's welcomed at first as an object of pity. But not for long: Cahill begins in his sightless way to delve, through heard voices and by way of phrasings alone, into the mystery of Joel's death. Joel, it turns out, was chief magus in a corpsmen-cult called Alnilam, a mixture of astrology, the Aprocrypha, Nietzsche, etc.--and Dickey strives mightily to fix this arcane canopy (not unreminiscent, incidentally, of one of Dickey's own more shaky longer poems, on the Zodiac) over this 683-page novel. But it doesn't come to much--and what perhaps would have held interesting immediacy as a short story turns into a force-fed ordeal of reiterated good-old-boy common sense and highfalutin metaphor. And device: for Cahill's blind-seeker thoughts are, in most scenes, set apart in bold type to one side of the page, while the sighted (and usually dullard) reality is to the other side of the page. The Cahill bold-type--sense-information mostly--runs to the molten flab of Dickey's poetry at its worst ("Which girl is still in the circle where all others are gone? Which face outlasted the death ball? She came at him as through the eye of a lock. His chest was the sound of a coring-drill; in his belly, it massed with the unbroken sullenness of organ music"), and the result overall--rather ping-ponging and eye-crossing--is one less of reward than of a long and wearying confusion.