Major literary works are invariably multi-dimensional, existing on several levels of meaning, each supporting and advancing the others. In many cases the basic level is action—the murder of a king, the repulse of an invasion, the pursuit of a whale. The reason, of course, is that no better story form has ever been invented for holding an audience while the storyteller gets in his more subtle licks.
Deliverance (Houghton Mifflin Co., $5.95), the first novel of James Dickey, an important American poet, is so constructed, with meanings within meanings. The action upon which Dickey hangs his other tales is the classic American one of men struggling against nature and other men. Four middle-age Atlanta businessmen set out on a canoe trip down an unknown river in the southern Appalachians. During their three-day trip, one of them is murdered, two become murderers, one is raped and all the survivors are badly mangled by the experience.
With so much happening so quickly, Deliverance obviously relies heavily on action, terror and violence, all artfully heightened by a poet able to materialize sensual specifics—the sound of river rapids, the feel of warm blood, a dead man's face. Actually, the who-struck-John narrative is the least successful of the book's several themes, partly because it is here that Dickey most indulges the privilege of poetic license. Three of his suburban voyageurs have never held a canoe paddle; the other, Lewis, is set up as a fanatical outdoorsman who cannot read a topographic map. Further, Lewis knows nothing about the river which, if it existed as described, would be one of the natural wonders of Appalachia. Yet, three days later those that remain of the crew are navigating like experts. Despite the impediments of their own wounds, the presence of a corpse and the body of a badly injured man, they get themselves safely through a white-water river in a stove-in canoe.
There is also the matter of the Appalachian mountaineers the group encounters. Without exception they are sinister—all of them, even the better types, lurk behind their gas stations, cabins and badges, in evident eagerness to bugger city stock-and-bond salesmen. There are, of course, villains in the eastern hills, but probably no more per acre than are to be found in Kalamazoo or Los Angeles.
The failings of Deliverance on this level can be overlooked because Dickey handles the other levels so well. Bobby, Drew, Lewis and Ed, the four companions, are laid low, in many senses of the word, because of their illusions about what constitutes manhood. The illusions, which Dickey brilliantly dissects, are those which have made the manly reps of gunmen from Bill Cody to George Patton. It is the version, or vision, that extols the primacy of the hand, eyeball, leg, nerve, crotch and gut. It is also the kind of manhood for which there is no longer, if there ever was, any rational outlet.
In varying degrees the Dickey four believe, as many of us do, in the veracity of the old folk myth that to be a man one needs hair on his chest. They suffer because for a few days they try what many male citizens occasionally fantasize in their Walter Mitty reveries, pretending they can conquer wild men—and wild rivers.
The agent of doom in Deliverance is Lewis Med lock, the one man among them who has not allowed the realities of manhood to dispel the illusions. He reeks of what the Latin world calls machismo. Medlock is a physical-fitness, competition, mind-over-matter freak who yearns for atomic or other holocaust so he can play the the guerrilla and survival games he has been practicing in basements and backyards. He is able to bully the others into the expedition—a recurring theme of Dickey's—not because he is uniquely mad but because his sort of madness afflicts many of us.
A day after the horror trip begins the fallacies of Medlock's fantastic vision are terribly exposed. Drew, the best and sanest of the four, is murdered. Bobby, the weakest, is raped. Medlock, who is the first to murder, is smashed on a rock, which is impervious to rules, rhetoric and romanticism. And so Ed Gentry, the narrator, is the only true survivor, and he must therefore extricate all of them from the consequences of their aberration.
The deliverance of Ed Gentry, the Everyman of the four, who sometimes is as good as Drew, as weak as Bobby, as mad as Medlock, is the final major theme of Deliverance. After the destruction of Medlock, true manhood, in fact humanhood, becomes Dickey's text. Stripped of all support and illusions, facing a ferocious river below him and a savage murderer on the canyon rim above, Gentry struggles between the classic rock and a hard place of humanity. Ed's story is where all others, at least those of Deliverance, converge.
Gothic and improbable as it may at first appear, Deliverance is a novel that provokes, unsettles and intimidates because it deals powerfully with a contemporary paradox. Sitting in a cocktail lounge, covertly ogling waitresses, playing with their map of the unknown river, fingering their chest hairs, Dickey's foursome could be planning an Indy weekend, a Maine hunting trip, a night on the Baltimore block, or the fire bombing of a courthouse. John Donne's bell tolls for all of them—and for most of us.