Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Lies, Deliverance, and James Dickey

Book Cover: James Dickey--The World As a Lie

I continue to pick at James Dickey's vitriolic and stereotypic descriptions of Appalachian people in Deliverance. Did Dickey mean for us to take our narrator's account at face value? Many people interpret it that way. The Brothers Judd offer a synopsis/review typical of many readers.

...Georgia suburbanites in search of adventure...decide to canoe down the wild Cahulawasee River before it is dammed up forever. The boys, as most everyone knows from the terrific movie, soon stumble upon more adventure than they had anticipated and find themselves at war with several denizens of the backwoods country. These four men are forced to confront the central question at the core of the male being: how would I react if I was confronted by physical danger and heroism was required.

Ed, the narrator and hero of the book, finds upon returning home that his entire life has improved. By performing well during the crisis, he has built up a personal reservoir of confidence that he continues to draw upon....This is a great book and perhaps one of the last truly male works of literature that will be admitted to the canon.

Perhaps, because I am not truly male, I just can't believe that seeing my three buddies sodomized, maimed, and shot, killing a couple of hillbillies, and lying to the police are weekend experiences that will subsequently improve my work and my marriage, give me a personal reservoir of confidence, and clear up my toenail fungus. Maybe I am projecting my girlish prejudices upon Mr. Dickey, but I think he is a more sophisticated story teller than that. I base this on Mr. Dickey's fame as a liar.

Dickey himself suggested the title for Henry Hart's 2000 biography, James Dickey: The World As a Lie. It must have been truly nightmarish to determine the facts of Dickey's life, given the many versions of himself that Dickey presented. Rodney Welsh summarizes a few of the "discrepancies:"

Hart...has no problem, virtually from page one, uncovering traces of Dickey's multiple deceptions. He said he grew up in a German household and didn't speak English until he was five or six; actually he learned only a handful of German words. His household was wealthy, living on the profits of his grandfather's tonic company, but he pretended to far humbler beginnings. His father was a lawyer of no distinction, but Dickey claimed he was a "linthead" who worked in a cotton mill and "believed the way to settle trouble was with lynchings." Dickey's sister recalls how Dickey as a boy was repulsed by the cockfights his father would stage, but as a macho poet he expressed nothing but redneck pride. "My people were all hillbillies," he liked to tell interviewers. His mother read poetry to him from infancy, yet Dickey claimed many times he came to poetry independently. From childhood, he had fantasies about being a fighter pilot, and following World War II, lied about having been one.

Book Cover: Summer of Deliverance

Christopher Dickey's 1998 book, Summer of Deliverance: A Memoir of Father and Son deals in detail with Dickey's deceptions. The New York Times 1998 review is subtitled:"Liar and Son Christopher Dickey discovers the difference between the world as it was and the world as James Dickey said it was." The review ends with this:

What makes this angry, affectionate memoir both gut-wrenching and hypnotic is a deeper, more horrifying lie at its core -- the lie that was James Dickey's entire life and that consisted not of a single falsehood but of thousands of little daily distortions and contrivances and outright fabrications. Some were harmless, many hurtful, others deadly. At one point, the son writes, ''My father had begun to make himself up.'' In every sense except the artistic one, it seems, James Dickey never told the truth at all.

1 comment:

Christopher Dickey said...

A very thoughtful post, thanks. But, you know, I've come to think that my father's biggest lie was about his lying. My perspective was as an uncertain child growing up in a world of small fantasies and great ambitions. Hart seemed to miss the point with many of the tall tales, holding Jim Dickey to a standard of probity that was not applied to his other sources, many of whom told plenty of tales of their own. ... As for Deliverance, you are right that two rednecks are villains and a deputy sheriff (related to one of them) is pretty vile, but the other people encountered in the mountains are just naturally suspicious of outsiders and many of them are generous and helpful. Sheriff Bullard was in many respects one of my father's heroes, which is one reason he played him in the movie.