He is perfect, or at least perfectible. He reads. He lifts weights. He runs. He does push-ups. He kills things. Says a friend, with more than a touch of envy, he is “the only man I knew who could do with his life exactly what he wanted to.”
Yet this man, Lewis, the brooding moral center of James Dickey’s bestselling novel, Deliverance, does not live a perfect life. More precisely, he lives in the endless suburban sprawl of Atlanta, a place that might inspire Nietzschean thoughts but, with its traffic jams and look-alike strip malls, does not adequately reward the superman. So it is that Lewis gathers up three needful friends to venture by canoe down an untamed Appalachian river, the wild Cahulawassee, that is about to be broken by the civilizing stuff of dams and marinas.
With Lewis, then, travel our narrator, a graphic artist named Ed Gentry, along with an insurance salesman named Bobby Trippe and a soft-drink executive named Drew Ballinger who, though the perfect company man, harbors a love of the wild music of the backcountry. That wild music loves him right back when, just beyond “the exact point where suburbia ended and the redneck South began,” he plays a duet with a mentally disabled boy who, it might be said, represents the innocence of that untamed country. There’s no more of that innocence to be seen, however, for Deliverance quickly plunges into a tale of murder (after all, says Lewis, “they don’t think a whole lot about killing people up here”), of terror and of the struggle for survival in a place where, it seems, even the rocks and trees have homicide on their minds.
Who wins? Lewis, Ed tells us, wants nothing other than to “be immortal.” The river drowns in itself, freighting Drew and a whole lot of bad karma. Bobby winds up broken, an exile; he will never be whole again, much less live forever. And as for Ed? Well, we learn, the river now haunts him, is part of everything he is and does—a transformation that seems, oddly enough, to please our once mild-mannered guide.
In the late 1960s, when Dickey—himself a man with more than a bit of Lewis in him—was writing Deliverance, another famed book with a river running through it was much on the minds of readers and writers. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness told of the unspeakable horrors that ensue when civilization and wilderness clash, a tale that was playing out across the ocean in Vietnam no less than in the mountain hollows of Appalachia. That elder book brought forth Deliverance, of course—but also such epochal books as Dog Soldiers and Dispatches, narratives that would flow into the films Who’ll Stop the Rain and Apocalypse Now.
At the close, Lewis suggests a life principle: Don’t fight the savagery that lies within, because it will always come bubbling back to the surface. Forty years ago, you needed look just outside the door for evidence. It remains true, and it is for that reason, perhaps, that Dickey’s novel has not aged a day.