Southern Lit Review–"Deliverance," James Dickey

It’s tough to review Deliverance — or, for that matter, any work that has so completely permeated the culture — with anything remotely approaching objectivity. Deliverance, in both book and movie form, has arguably done more than anything short of Klansmen to damage the reputation and image of the South. Sure, inbred banjo-pickin’ and sodomy existed long before James Dickey used them like machetes in his book, but Deliverance brought them to the mainstream. You can’t even think of the story without thinking of Ned Beatty’s “squeal like a pig” scene. (Beatty apparently came up with the line himself just before the one and only take of that scene; he’s reportedly never spoken of it since.) And just to hear the opening notes of Dueling Banjos is enough to send a shiver up to all but the reddest of necks.

Anyway, the story: four Atlanta businessmen decide to go canoeing in some uncharted river territory in north Georgia. Being suburban, and thus stupid, they assume they can either bluster or buy their way through the rural country-ass society. They make enemies fast, and before you can say — everybody at once now — “squeal like a pig,” they’re in deep, the bodies are piling up, and the choices before them are ugly indeed. To tell more than that would spoil the story for those of you who don’t know it. Suffice it to say that the horrific situations these men find themselves in don’t sound nearly so funny when they uncoil around you like a nest of snakes.

The title is one of the most fascinating and unexplored elements of the book. “Deliverance” implies passivity — a need for an outside entity to do the delivering. The question for these poor bastards is, who — or what — is delivering them, and what kind of world are they delivering them into? Our narrator talks at length of keeping settled in his humdrum, everyday existence; one of his colleagues continually rants about the need to bust out of that same box. And when events force them out of that hole, never to return to its comforts, well…it’s not hard to project yourself into their shoes. Hopefully not Ned Beatty’s.

Deliverance is one of the best novels of the 20th century. Read it…and beware of banjos.

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