6 July 2012: James Dickey — Southern poet and genius

Posted: July 6, 2012 in Uncategorized

Yes, I watched Deliverance again … not intentionally; it just happened to be on. But since James Dickey’s masterpiece of Southern fiction is (again) on my summer reading list, I wanted to catch it on the screen. Especially after recently reading a piece on Dickey’s complicated (I refuse to call it tragic) life as described in this piece in the The Atlantic, a review of the book written by Dickey’s son, about his life with the poet and writer.

I wrote a post a while back about why Clint Eastwood still matters. Dickey still matters, too. Deliverance is, by far, his legacy more than anything else he wrote, but it’s not so much the novel as it is the imprint it left. As Faulkner was nearly impenetrably dense, Dickey was near-lyrical in his prose. Both wrote with a rawness — at times, a savagery — that requires an enormous amount of courage and vulnerability at the same time. And much the way Flannery O’Connor’s characters were bizarre, even grotesque, and extraordinarily violent, Dickey’s characters aren’t merely violent outsiders — or perverted rednecks. His characters threatened and frightened, the way prophets of old did when delivering a message that, if not needed to be heard, certainly deserved to be.

That the movie version got made is a minor miracle in itself. Dickey’s turn as a screenwriter was nearly a disaster — and a tale of caution for all novelists (myself included). There’s a great account of his struggles here, no doubt complicated by an overdeveloped ego, a fondness for alcohol and the zealot’s belief in the purity of his story — both the written version and the one still in his head (a common affliction among writers).

In the end, though, American cinema gained one of its best movies. Sadly, it’s been reduced to one scene — the one with “You shore got a purty mouth.” The movie is so much more than that, though, as any serious viewing reveals. Four superb actors, in their prime, carrying a morality tale for the ages, set against the inevitable forces of nature, change and culture. Burt Reynolds — before he became a caricature of himself — towers in  the movie as a sort of Redneck Everyman whose character lives the message of the movie.

As Reynolds’ Lewis Medlocke says in the movie, “Sometime you have to lose yourself before you can find anything.”

That’s really why I watched it again.

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