Tuesday, August 24, 2010

James Dickey--Deliverance (1970) (I)

I had planned to start this essay with a joke, saying that I identified deeply with this book because its most famous episodes were as if lifted directly from my own life, at which point I was going to say, oh wait, no, forget it, that was the opening to my essay on David Copperfield, or something of that sort. However I have not been feeling too jokey lately, so my attempts at writing it straight seemed to me to be falling flat. I don't have the spirit either to mock, even half-heartedly, or to confront directly--let alone triumphantly--what the story would have me confront. Nonetheless it does not strike me as being beyond my capacity to offer a commentary on what I think it purports to say.

This is another book I would have been willing to put off reading forever if it had never come up on my list. This was mainly on account of all the references to the infamous scene in the movie, which I had also contentedly avoided seeing until recently. The novel was a minor sensation around the time I was born, so I had some interest in seeing what kinds of things were preoccupying the collective mind at that time. Was there other value in it? It was written by a poet, and has a kind of fantastic viewpoint and story, and at various points the writing gives the effect of being a prose-poem. That is worthwhile for seeing what kinds of things can be done with the form. The story did not stir me much, though the execution of it was admirable enough in most points. It is purposefully and tautly written. It is not overly short--there is a lot of explanation of what exactly characters are doing at any given time, of their material baggage, the terrain through which they are moving, all of which however is economically achieved and always serves to move the narrative forward. So that is good.

The movie is almost identical to the novel, and adds really nothing to it if you have already read the latter--even the famous "duelling banjos" scene is conveyed quite skilfully in the book, as another commentator, whom I will discuss more later, has observed just this week. The most infamous scene is far scarier and better developed in the book. The movie is quite highly regarded as a movie, but the book is much superior in pretty much every way, and while I admire the book, it left me pretty cold for the most part. My impression would be that the movie is generally overrated.

As I alluded to earlier, another commentary on this book was published in the New York Times the other day commemorating the 40th anniversary of the novel's publication. Like most of the book writing in that publication it is rather strikingly pedestrian and uninformative. Since I was about to begin an essay of my own on the same subject, I thought I ought it might be of interest to refer to it for some comparisons. The Times author likes the book more than I do, and takes the opportunity to get in some swipes at the men, writers and otherwise, of the present midlife generation for not showing much of a taste for engaging with the great themes that are the main preocuupations of the novel--danger, mortality, or anything else remotely discomfiting in general. This is perhaps true--complaints about the passive, stupefied, low testosterone state of modern manhood have been a pretty constant theme throughout my life--but I think he both exaggerates the significance of Dickey's engagement with these spectres in Deliverance and does not seem to grasp the substantial underlying reasons why issues would have even less immediate resonance with the man-children of generation X than they did with the more conventionally hardened, accomplished and actualized men of 40 years ago.

The introduction of Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air as an example of non-fiction authors' moving onto the soil which novelists have chosen to abandon by the way is bizarre and nothing to the point. I have read this book, which is entertaining in a finding-out-what-kinds-of-weird-things-are-going-on-in-the-world-nowadays kind of way, and while the various catastrophes delineated in its pages may have suggested various contemplations on mortality, vanity and so on to certain readers, they don't appear to have done so to Krakauer himself, whose standout characteristic to me as a writer is how 95% of the questions and matters of interest that would have suggested themselves to most good writers do not seem to do so with him. It is even almost fascinating to read someone who is in many ways so unaffected by metaphysical concerns to any serious extent. (Greg Mortensen, The Three Cups of Tea guy, whose literary method has a similar odd lack of general intellectual or historical underpinning that seems to consciously inform his interpretation of his experience). Camus, or even Maurice Herzog, would have come at the material from a totally different conception of human existence. The lesson of Into Thin Air, as Krakauer saw it, was that too many people were climbing Mt Everest who were not anywhere near prepared or experienced enough for the rigor of such an expedition; those who did survive the catastrophes which befell the expeditions written about in the book were for the most part lucky, helpless to save themselves but being people of privilege and high self-regard expectant that efforts must be undertaken to save them. There was the usual indignation about environmental effects, Western incursion on indigenous communities, culturally obnoxious behavior and so on. The book's concerns are about forms and practical training and knowledge, which it takes to speak for itself when attained.

If current writers are not writing about the kinds of themes which are prevalent in Deliverance--and I am not sure that no one is (are there not novels about, say, migration from Central America across the dangerous deserts of Mexico and Arizona? Is not this unflinching grappling with the elemental nature of existence what Cormac McCarthy is celebrated for?)--it is probably because they do not feel them to be especially pressing concerns. Why they do not is perhaps one of the keys to understanding the age.

James Dickey was by most accounts consumed with living, and giving the appearance of living, a macho life. Despite having solid credentials to the title of acceptable manliness by most contemporary standards--played college football, served in World War II, had a successful career as an advertising executive, a more successful and acclaimed career as a writer, was an accomplished archer, guitarist and woodsmen, drank like a fish and bedded scores of women--he evidently felt the necessity of exaggerating the details of these accomplishments. I will not speculate on the deep causes of this insecurity or obsession or whatever one wishes to call it, but judging by the characters in his book, something in the effect which the easy security and comfortable status of postwar suburban life had on men was repulsive to his higher nature, he detected something of the same effect at work, even if mildly upon himself, and he reacted against it in an exaggerated manner; which was not unusual amongst male artistic types in his generation.
People my age may indeed have this same instinctive repulsion towards the type, especially if they are of it or even proximate enough, but it takes a different form. Life appears to be more competitive all around now; one's pool of competitors is much larger, and meaningful achievement that will incline the people around you to feel basic respect, let alone admiration for you harder to attain. The characters in Deliverance are presumably in their 30s, and we are supposed to take them as soft and mild--even the muscular Lewis character (played by Burt Reynolds in the movie), who is a workout fanatic and dedicates himself to all manner of weapons and outdoor adventure training, is portrayed as a somewhat ridiculous version of an authentic man. Nonetheless they all have jobs that easily support families and pay for homes, and their relative status at work is pretty high (above all women and black people at the minimum). At home, though the suggestion is that modern domesticity has drained all the vital spirit out of them, by present educated class standards they largely ignore their wives and children, are never expected to change diapers or babysit, and spend pretty much every weekend playing golf or going fishing with their male friends. My guess is that the typical 40 year old male or male writer today, not secure enough in having met the minimal requirements of adult manhood in the context of his own society, cannot presume to devote a lot of worry to how he would fare if confronted with mortality in the form of extreme violence or elemental adversity. Probably, he has little choice but to figure, not well. It might be difficult to convince him, if he cannot even achieve fairly simple desires, and feels no imminent threat of such violence, that it matters...

I'm bringing this to an end here. I may continue it later. In some sense.

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