Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Again With Deliverance, Bootsie?

Book Cover: Deliverance

Is James Dickey's Deliverance an adventure story set in the land of the nine-fingered people, where musicians are wall-eyed albino idiot-savants, and vicious, toothless hillbillies wait at every turn of the river to sodomize passing strangers? A lot of people think so (and we in Pocahontas County like to bring up the movie whenever we think we can scare off a skier or mountain biker). James Dickey's movie screenplay is set in that Appalachia, but I think his novel is a more complicated work. Dickey drops many hints that Ed's narrative is a pack of lies.

Ed tells us first off that he is an advertising executive--that is, a professional liar, a profit-motivated manipulator of opinion. Then, as Ed describes the unfolding events, he gives us hints that the story is unbelievable.

An old man with a straw hat and workshirt appeared at Lewis' window talking in. He looked like a hillbilly in some badly cast movie, a character actor too much in character to be believed. I wondered where the excitement was that intrigued Lewis so much; everything in Oree was sleepy and hookwormy and ugly, and most of all, inconsequential. Nobody worth a damn could ever come from such a place.

"Too much in character to be believed." The deformed, sickly farmers, each with a murdering relative in prison, the drunken old moonshiner screaming senselessly in the woods--are we meant to believe all this is real? Within a few minutes of pulling the canoe ashore to rest, Ed and Bobby are attacked. (What are the odds that they would pull up into a den of rapists? Or is the river lined on both sides with such men, waiting for tourists?) After Lewis kills one of the cretinous sodomites, Ed and his companions immediately begin to plan what lie they will tell when they reach the end of their trip. While Drew says they should go to the police and tell the truth, the others decide to conceal the body and pretend no rape occurred.

After they upset the canoes in the rapids, where Drew is killed and Lewis severely injured, Ed tracks down and kills the hillbilly he thinks shot Drew and is stalking the others. (Is it the sodomite rapist from upstream? He thinks so, but that man was toothless and unarmed; the man he kills has a rifle and dentures. Did he go home, change his clothes, put in his teeth, and get his gun? Could he have been an innocent bystander? The details of Ed's hunt grow steadily less plausible. And there is only a one in four chance that Drew would be the hillbilly sniper's first victim. How interesting that he was the one who wanted to tell the truth.) Ed conceals the second hillbilly's corpse, along with Drew, and plans the lie he and his friends will tell when they reach town. There are a few hitches, but they bluff their way through. Ultimately, Ed feels that the weekend trip, with all its killing and lying, has given him new resources of personal strength, confidence, and satisfaction.

Why should we believe Ed is telling us the truth, when he's lied to everybody else? What do the men's families know about what happened? Four men with bows and arrows, minimal canoing skills, and a lot of liquor go on a trip in the mountains. Only three of them come home. We really don't need any murderous hillbillies to make such a thing happen. Even the rape, if it happened, need not have involved local people who fortuitously appeared at the very spot chosen for an unplanned rest stop. As an additional flag to question Ed's veracity, Dickey's narrator describes feelings incongruous with his experiences. He despises the rape victim, even fantasizes about shooting him. He feels fulfilled by his successful man-hunt, and returns home to practice his art with renewed enthusiasm. Most people (including Dickey in his war poems) respond to such events with inappropriate hypervigilance, nightmares, guilt, and anxiety.

I don't know what "really" happened on the canoe trip. I wonder if Ed does? Is the ugliness of Appalachia a projection of Ed's (or Dickey's) inner ugliness? Did James Dickey know which of his own stories were true and which were fabrications? Amid these multiple, incompatible versions of people and events, any attempt at certainty would be attractive. Ed says of the map Lewis uses to invite him on the trip:

It was certainly not much from the standpoint of design....there was nothing to call you or stop you on one place or the other. Yet the eye could not leave the whole; there was a harmony of some kind. Maybe, I thought, it's because this tries to show what exists.

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.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Sweet Scents of Spring

Lilac inflorescences Lilac flowers, up close

It's been a banner year for lilacs in Pocahontas County. All the bushes I've seen have been covered with blossoms, Even this old shrub in my yard, shaded by the cherry and apple trees, never pruned, has been heavy with flowers and overwhelmingly sweet-smelling. Usually, it manages half a dozen inflorescences, high out of reach of cameras and noses.

Then, just as the lilac scent began to fade, the pesky, invasive autumn olives began to bloom, and everything smelled sweet again. I just can't exterminate anything that smells this good, and gives the indigo buntings a place near the house where I can admire their color and song.

Fragrant autumn olive flowers

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

James Dickey: Some Links, Some Questions

Book Cover: Deliverance

I don't seem to be able to read one book and then put it down and move on. For some time, I've been trying to interpret James Dickey's vitriolic descriptions of rural Southerners in Deliverance. Do we take at face value our more-or-less reliable narrator's description of the places he went and the people he encountered? Watching the movie (screenplay by Dickey himself, and he appears as the local sheriff toward the end), we see the events with our own eyes, so they are unambiguous. Are we meant to take the novel as a similarly straightforward account? Dickey was a poet and a professor, highly regarded by his students and by literary critics. I would expect that he paid careful attention to his word choice, and that passages such as this are meant to evoke skepticism.

"What's life like up there now?" I asked. "I mean, before you take to the mountains and set up the Kingdom of Sensibility?"

"Probably not too much different from what it's liable to be then," he said. "Some hunting and a lot of screwing and a little farming. Some whiskey-making. There's lots of music, it's practically coming out of the trees. Everybody plays something: the guitar, the banjo, the autoharp, the spoons, the dulcimer--or the dulcimore, as they call it. I'll be disappointed if Drew doesn't get to hear some of that stuff while we're up here. These are good people, Ed. But they're awfully clannish, they're set in their ways. They'll do what they want to do, no matter what. Every family I've ever met up here has at least one relative in the penitentiary. Some of them are in for murder. They don't think a lot about killing people up here. They really don't. But they'll generally leave you alone if you do the same thing, and if one of them likes you he'll do anything in the world for you. So will his family...."

Half hippie fantasy, half horror flick, Lewis's description is proven true by the book's events. I don't know what to think, so I keep reading. I've found several high-quality Internet resources about James Dickey the last couple of months, including some of Dickey's own prose and poetry. Here are my recommendations.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Appalachia: Land of the Nine-Fingered People

Jack in the pulpit, near Swago

I mentioned Deliverance recently, in the context of entertainment suitable for discouraging unwanted tourism. I saw the movie when it first came out, but I'd not read James Dickey's novel until I found it at the local library book sale this past winter. I had started a blog entry about it, but soon realized it was too complex an issue for a short essay. I've been reading Dickey's poems, and some critical and biographical essays, and I'm quite intrigued.

Here's the passage that first caught my attention. Our narrator, Ed, is musing in the car as his buddy Lewis works out canoe trip logistics with the locals in Oree, their put-in point for canoeing the Cahulawassee river. Ed has already told us he is about 150 miles north of Atlanta, which puts him in the southernmost mountains of the Appalachians. (All the place names mentioned, except Atlanta, appear to be fictional.) Nothing bad has happened to Ed yet, but he has been ragging on rural Georgia for the previous twenty pages.

DVD: Deliverance

There is always something wrong with people in the country, I thought. In the comparatively few times I had ever been in the rural South I had been struck by the number of missing fingers. Offhand, I had counted around twenty, at least. There had also been several people with some form of crippling or twisting illness, and some blind or one-eyed. No adequate medical treatment, maybe. But there was something else. You'd think that farming was a healthy life, with fresh air and fresh food and plenty of exercise, but I never saw a farmer who didn't have something wrong with him, and most of the time obviously wrong; I never saw one who was physically powerful, either. Certainly there were none like Lewis. The work with the hands must be fantastically dangerous, in all that fresh air and sunshine, I thought: the catching of an arm in a tractor part somewhere off in the middle of a field where nothing happened but that the sun blazed back more fiercely down the open mouth of one's screams. And so many snakebites deep in the woods as one stepped over a rotten log, so many domestic animals suddenly turning and crushing one against the splintering side of a barn stall. I wanted none of it, and I didn't want to be around where it happened either. But I was there, and there was no way for me to escape, except by water, from the country of the nine-fingered people.

"Offhand," indeed. And, "no way to escape, except by water"--when he says this, he is sitting in a car in the county seat. It's not too late to find a pay phone and call his wife to come get him. This "country of the nine-fingered people" is not part of my space-time continuum.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Further Adventures With Morels

We've been making a few late passes through the woods, looking for the yellow morels. They've been scattered, but we've found enough to keep us looking. As we find them, we are drying them and storing them for later in the year. It's better than waiting for enough to make a skillet-full when hunting is this sparse, and we think that drying somehow intensifies the flavor. A sauce made from dried morels seems more flavorful than fresh, sauted morels. A morel in the dehydrator is worth two in the pan, perhaps.

yellow morel in its habitat morels going into the dehydrator dried morels to save for later

Sunday, May 14, 2006

More Mysteries: Anne Perry's A Sudden Fearful Death

Book Cover: A Sudden, Fearful Death

Another mystery novel I read this week, under the guise of spring cleaning, was Anne Perry's A Sudden, Fearful Death. Like Ruth Rendell, Ms. Perry is much admired and much purchased, and I am happy to report that she is also a skillful writer. This novel is part of a Victorian London series centering around a retired policeman and a Crimean War veteran nurse. It is scrupulously free of anachronism, except, perhaps, for a sneaking disapproval of unjust policies and attitudes of the past. There may be no getting around that in a contemporary story. I'm not the fiction reader that I once was, or I would now be scouring bookstores and libraries for the rest of Perry's William Monk mysteries. (In any case, I would search in vain, for my local library now is the owner of one, count it, one, book in this series, the one I just finished.)

My Internet searches showed me that Anne Perry is interesting not only as an author, but also for her life story. Here are a few informative Web resources.

  • The Wikipedia entry begins: "Anne Perry (born October 28, 1938), born Juliet Hulme in England, is a British historical novelist and convicted murderer (see also Parker-Hulme Murder)."
  • The Official Anne Perry Website is slick, attractive, and content-rich, but the home page took five full minutes to load on my dial-up connection, and it contained nothing more than an author photo and site navigation links. Bad webmaster! Shame, shame!
  • An interesting interview with Anne Perry, from Strand Magazine.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Ruth Rendell's The Bridesmaid

Book Cover: The Bridesmaid

I was browsing my bookshelves Monday, looking for books to donate to my local library, when I came across The Bridesmaid, a book I'd bought a long time ago and never read. One thing leads to another, and before I knew it I was cuddled up to the wood stove, reading through the cold, rainy afternoon. I knew Ruth Rendell is very popular, and very successful, and I was delighted to discover that she is a skillful writer. It makes me think better of the whole book business, writers, buyers, and sellers.

The Bridesmaid is more of a suspense story than a mystery. While it takes the form of genre fiction, its characters and plot are beautifully developed, and the recurrent image of a Classical goddess, Flora, ties up the subplots elegantly. I believe if she were less popular and less well-marketed, Ms. Rendell would be considered a "serious" writer, fit for university literature classes. Of course, I've seen two (!) books of scholarly essays on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so perhaps the best-seller listings no longer exclude books from the Literature department.

Some On-Line Resources on Ruth Rendell:

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Greenbrier Back Country: Here Be Cannibals

Greenbrier back country, as seen from the ridge where I live

Earlier this week I watched a teen horror movie on satellite TV: Wrong Turn, released in 2003. I'd been watching for it since I first saw it advertised, because the trailers revealed it was set in West Virginia and featured frightening hillbillies doing terrible things to vacationing suburbanites. With all the tourists visiting Pocahontas County (especially the despised skiers throwing their Starbucks cups and other trash out the car windows as they drive home from Snowshoe Resort) some local residents consider such cinema wish fulfillment. To my delight, the opening action sported this subtitle: "Greenbrier backcountry, West Virginia." (Check my photo at left--Greenbrier backcountry as seen from my neighbor's yard this morning.) Not only do Wrong Turn's hillbillies terrorize annoying city folk, but they do it in my backyard! While many writers have selected West Virginia as their setting for mayhem and uncivilized behavior, we believe this is the only movie that has the inbred mountain men actually eating the rich.

Movie Poster: Wrong Turn

Now, nobody viewing this movie could expect it to win a prize at Sundance, but some of the reviewers consider the movie "good of its kind." Of course paid reviewers don't approve. For example, Fox Channel 11 out of Charleston, WV archived this review of the movie, in which reviewer Kenny Bass says:

"West Virginia doesn't inspire movie makers to spin tales of sophisticated romantic comedy or high flying action. No, instead we get "Wrong Turn." Set in the Greenbrier backcountry, it's the story of six young people stuck in the middle of the really doesn't bother me that "Wrong Turn" depicts West Virginians as toothless, mindless, cannibalistic, inbred hillbillies, hunting and eating innocent tourists, rafters and mountain climbers. No, what really upsets me is the movie isn't very good....Oh, and there's one final insult. It wasn't even filmed in West Virginia. They shot it in Canada. Thanks for nothing."

Here on Droop Mountain, in the Greenbrier backcountry, we consider Wrong Turn propaganda for our cause. We'd like to have it played continuously on cable TV at Snowshoe Resort, or perhaps it could alternate with "Deliverance."

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Recalling Chickweed and Other Stellar Events

Star chickweed flowers

When I first noticed this stuff last spring on Williams River, I knew I ought to know what it was. I wish I had the recall to say "What a large and showy chickweed!" or something else on the mark. But I just fumbled around in the back rooms of my brain, muttering, "Looks like little stars...." Which, of course, is not true. After paging through a few field guides and floras this spring, I figured it out: Stellaria pubera, or great chickweed. "Chickweeds look like little stars" was how I once learned to remember the genus name Stellaria. So, I remembered the memory aide, but not the piece of information it was meant to retrieve. There was a university professor who used to tell us grad students, "I've forgotten more than you'll ever know." The guys used to get really aggravated. I laughed when he told me, and said, "Oh, no doubt. I've already forgotten more than I'll ever know." It was true then, and it's getting truer every day.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Understanding Joyce Carol Oates a Little Better

Run at the headwaters of the Williams River

I recently read Cathleen Shine's review, People Who Hurt People. She is writing about Joyce Carol Oates' new anthology, High Lonesome : Stories 1966-2006. This review articulated some aspects of Oates' writing that I had been struggling to understand, and I'm going to save a few quotes here to help in case the review disappears behind the New York Times' firewall. Of course, they may well keep it in their public book review archive section, along with this: (April 30, 2006) First Chapter: 'High Lonesome.'

Published: April 30, 2006
New York Times Book Review

For those of us who have stood before bookstore shelves lined with Joyce Carol Oates volumes, paralyzed with awe, wondering which of her more than 100 books we should open first, "High Lonesome," a new collection of 36 stories written between 1966 and 2006, is a welcome addition. The collection, which includes classic stories like "In the Region of Ice," which won the O. Henry prize in 1967, and the much anthologized "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" as well as 11 new stories, spans Oates's career and gives a remarkably coherent picture of her work....

One of the most extraordinary aspects of Oates's intense and violent world of struggle is the absence of suspense. Her language lunges forward at a tense, breathless pace, as if she were writing a thriller, but Oates is actually a kind of a fatalist. Characters often question whether they have free will, and with good reason: they don't. The characters, the language and the stories all rush forward, but, like a herd of frightened animals, they are stampeding off the same high cliff. It is this fatalism combined with the suspenseful rhythm of her language that creates the odd, unsettling atmosphere of the stories. There are crimes here, but they will not be "solved" as they would be in police procedural. There is danger, but it will not be overcome as in a genre thriller. Her stories are closest, in terms of genre, to the great American horror stories of the 19th century, but here, too, with an important difference. When we read, say, Poe, we know the violence, creepy and disturbing, is a nightmare, a hellish and unusual event that entertains us and reminds us of the depths to which a human being can sink or be driven. In "High Lonesome," however, that depth of depravity is the definition of what it is to be human.

....Oates has been described as a social realist, but is more accurately described as a fantasist. The stories in fact are often told by fantasists, from the point of view of unreliable narrators, of uncomprehending children, of the unbalanced and the insane. And it is these people, and how they observe, who interest Oates. These stories are sensational in the true sense of the word. Oates's breathless prose swirls furiously around these lurid moments, moments when violence and voyeurism converge....everything is portentous for many deaths, so many disturbed men, so many little girls. They all begin to seem the same, generic. That is, I think, Oates's point, that the threat of violence is the human condition, the thrill of violence is a human appetite. But this monochromatic view, however vivid the single color, may account for why Oates's stories can feel so impersonal....It is a world in which everyone is finally alone, on the edge of that black hole.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Dwarf Ginseng

dwarf ginseng flowers

This is my third spring of trying to photograph and identify this handsome, small spring ephemeral. Last weekend gave me three sunny days for photography, and here it is: dwarf ginseng, Panax trifolius. I kept trying to reconcile the flowers with the Saxifragaceae, a mistake I made using the key in The Flora of West Virginia (WVU, 1972). When I finally read through all the "wrong" families, (my last resort--trial and error approach--it's a common flower, it has to be in here somewhere) I found it in the Araliaceae. Apparently, it has the panacea reputation of our other ginseng species, P. quinquefolia, and is recommended for everything from gout to existential malaise.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Spring Beauty and Ethnobotany in Pocahontas County

Bed of Spring Beauty--Habitat shot

The spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) on Droop Mountain is bloomed out for this year, but at the headwaters of the Williams (about 800 feet higher than Droop), it's still in abundant flower. It's quite lovely, and has the interesting feature of having different chromosome numbers in different parts of the plant.

The day I unloaded the moving van at my house in 1999, a friend pointed out this plant in my yard, and observed to her 12-year-old son that it was edible. He asked her why he should remember that, and she said, "Because someday you may be hungry." Although she's only about 40, she grew up in the old-time way in Pocahontas County, without electricity or "modern conveniences." If her grandparents didn't grow it or make it, she did without it. To this day, she gathers and sells ramps, ginseng, Indian pipe, Podophylum, and anything else that grows in the woods that can bring in a dollar.

As a folklore informant, she has excellent credentials. However, I'm not about to cook up a mess of Claytonia and eat it on her advice, even though I have eaten other members of the Portulacaceae (purslane family). For one thing, she consistently called it "crowfoot." There is a genus of spring flowers called crowfoot (Ranunculus). Now, the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae) has some seriously poisonous members, and even though I think she has correctly identified an edible plant, and incorrectly remembered the name, I'm not going to experiment without some further confirmation, especially since I'm not going hungry.

Many of my mother's wildflower identifications were wrong. Sumac, ironweed, dock--she put all these names on the wrong plants. Lately, people I know have incorrectly identified skunk cabbage, jack-in-the-pulpit, white hellebore, poke, and Thalictrum dioicum. It's not a big deal--I've spent plenty of time hanging around the herbarium, keying things out. I have a good, cautious taxonomist's eye, and a healthy respect for plant secondary compounds. However, most of these "folk" misidentifications were either putatively poisonous or putatively edible. It's not good to mistake Indian poke for skunk cabbage if you're planning on cooking spring greens, because Indian poke (Veratrum viride) is one of those poisonous ranunculaceous plants, and skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) is a tasty treat when picked early.

I guess I was just hoping to collect some interesting herbal folklore. Instead, I'm finding that sort of knowledge has been nearly lost here.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Anemone of the People

Windflower on Williams River

In an attempt to "Know My Spring Ephemerals," I've been spending some time with lenses, keys, and field guides this year. That's why I can say with some confidence that this lovely white flower, so abundant last weekend on the Williams River, is a wood anemone (also windflower, Anemone quinquefolia). You may recognize a few ramp leaves in the background.

This flower was, however, the second one I hunkered down to photograph. The first windflower offered me the surprise below--a snowy white crab spider dining on a would-be pollinator. Notice the pink bars on the spider's side--these correspond to the pink edges of the anemone's petals while still in the bud. I'm accustomed to see golden crab spiders hiding on late summer asters and goldenrod, but this cryptic anemone spider was a new one for me.

Cryptic crab spider eating a pollinator on a windflower

Monday, May 01, 2006

Ramps, Camping, and Old-Time Music

Ramps in their native habitat

Last weekend, we returned to Williams River to dig ramps, cook them, play music, and camp with our friends from Greenbrier County. In the last five years that I've gone, it's always been cloudy, rainy, cold, or snowing. This past weekend was sunny and delightful, and I took lots of pictures.

Above, you see ramps in their native habitat; here this includes some lovely dutchman's britches. Below are washed ramps, ready to cut up and cook, and below that, you see some of the cooking crew at work.

Ramps are more than a tasty spring treat; they are an Appalachian cultural phenomenon, and I'm afraid I'm not qualified to explain it. I'm just pleased to participate. As you can see, they are a sort of wild leek, and they are delicious cooked in eggs, potatoes, meatloaf, or on their own, as a vegetable dish. They are good raw, too, but they linger on your breath and your skin for days, like garlic, but much more pungent, so you need to make sure all your family eats them raw at the same time.

Ramps washed and ready to cut up Ramp cleaning crew