“What I thought about mainly was that I was in a place where none – or almost none – of my daily ways of living my life would work; there was no habit I could call on. Is this freedom? I wondered.” (p. 93)
The Resolution Project: For my New Year’s resolution this year (that being 2011), I decided to try and read all one hundred of the novels picked by Time Magazine as the best since their inception in 1923 to the list’s publication in 2005. I exempted myself from reading ones I’ve already read, leaving some eighty-six or so to read before the end of this year. Some spoilers may lie ahead, so be warned.
Ed Gentry is a founder and art director for a small advertising agency in Georgia who decides to go on a canoe trip down the Cahulawassee river, which is scheduled to be dammed up and turned into a lake. The impetus for the trip comes from his friend Lewis, an outdoorsy athletic type, and two other men, Drew and Bobby come along for the ride. While the scenery is gorgeous and the river exciting, the group soon finds out that they are way over their heads in this backwoods setting. After a fateful run-in with a pair of hillbillies, Ed must sacrifice all his civilized ideals if they are to make it out of the woods alive.
This is a pretty solid thriller narrative, definitely fulfilling the task of making me never want to go on a canoe trip ever again (which I’m assuming was the intention). Dickey does a very good job at getting someone like myself, who, despite putting in a few years as a Cub Scout, would never classify as a great outdoorsman, into the mindset of men fending off the wilderness just to stay alive. The descriptions of white-water canoeing are pretty good, and he also does good work in helping the reader understand the mechanics of bow-hunting, as well as the mental state you get into with a target in your sights. I feel like I learned a bit while reading Deliverance.
The book, though, is so fraught with homosexual subtext that I almost felt embarrassed for it at points. It’s almost not even “sub” at this point, it’s basically just the text. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course, but it was a little distracting for Gentry to keep describing how good of shape Lewis was in all of the time:
“Everything he had done for himself for years paid off as he stood there in his tracks, in the water. I could tell by the way he glanced at me; the payoff was in my eyes … [y]ou could even see the veins in his gut, and I knew I could not even begin to conceive how many sit-ups and leg-raises- and how much dieting – had gone into bringing them into view.” (p. 102)
It goes on like that at many points. You could make a case for it being symptomatic of Gentry’s distaste for his own 40-year old, balding, flabby self, that maybe he’s trying to live vicariously through Lewis’ great body, but it feels deeper than that. Lewis doesn’t seem like that great of a guy to be honest, he’s a proto-survivalist who envies the mountain folk in the Georgia backwoods the simplicity they have there. He’s the reason the group gets in this situation, as he stakes out the stretch of river they are to go down, not knowing of course that some of the rapids and rocks in that area basically make it impassible, and that the hillbillies he has such a fondness for are a bit psychopathic.
The sons of the soil in question are the thing that I feel left the biggest impression on pop culture through the 1972 film (the infamous “Squeal like a pig!” line doesn’t actually appear in the book, it was apparently something Ned Beatty thought up on set). I appreciated bringing some human villains in to get the book out of the Boy’s Own adventure mould, but having them within the space of maybe two minutes start raping one party member and threaten another with the same seemed a little abrupt to me. Perhaps they should have kicked a dog first, that’s a good way to establish villain cred, but going straight to sodomy was a little excessive, and added to the strange mix of machismo-homosexuality that permeates the text. Not to mention that the combination of the book and the film have probably set city slicker/hillbilly relations back a hundred years.
As I mentioned before, the book was made into a highly successful feature film in 1972, starring Ed Voight as the protagonist, and Burt Reynolds’ abs as Lewis. I saw it maybe 5 years ago, and while the book made me want to check it out again, it’s not super urgent. I’d honestly rather watch director John Boorman’s follow up feature, Zardoz (I’m starting to suspect he’s got a thing for hirsute men):
Total pages read since January 1st: 7076 pp.
Next up on the Resolution Project: John Cheever’s Falconer (1977)