'Summer of Deliverance': James Dickey redeemed?

August 02, 1998|By Tess Lewis | Tess Lewis,Special to the sun

"Summer of Deliverance," by Christopher Dickey. Simon and Schuster. 280 pages. $23.

All poetry, I suspect, is nothing more or less than an attempt to discover or invent conditions under which one can live with oneself," the poet James Dickey wrote in the late 1960s. A few years later, after his best-selling novel "Deliverance" was made into a movie and his boisterous public persona had hardened into an almost inescapable mask, Dickey needed the consoling mythologies of his poetry more than ever.

In "Summer of Deliverance," Christopher Dickey has written a compassionate but clear-eyed account of his father's decline. This charismatic, immensely talented poet and powerful intellect was gradually eclipsed by the "pickin' and singin', drinkin' and whorin' regional poet" desperate to re-enact the Byronic role of poet as "mad, bad, and dangerous to know."

James Dickey is shown in all his glory, creating vivid, muscular poetry that earned him enthusiastic admirers, a Guggenheim fellowship, a National Book Award and a term as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. Yet Christopher Dickey also describes a pathetic buffoon stalking cinemas where "Deliverance" was playing.

"He would wear his purple fringed leather jacket and his big Stetson hat with the pheasant-feather band. Sometimes the long strands of hair he combed over the top of his balding head would come loose and drop down over one ear, giving him the look of a cowboy who'd been half scalped. The smell of alcohol would ooze from his pores. And he would stand in the long lines - even walk up and down the lines - as people waited for tickets. 'You see that?' he'd say. 'That's my movie.' "

Born in 1923, Dickey spent one year at Clemson College before enlisting in the Air Force in 1942. He began writing while serving, but did not publish his first collection of poems until 1961. Soon after, he traded the advertising job that had been sustaining his family for academia and the lecture circuit.

Christopher Dickey dates the beginning of his father's end from the publication of "Deliverance" in 1970 because the success it brought was so sudden, fierce and destructive. Yet he acknowledges that warning signs -the whiskey on his father's breath, the drama of the public persona, his mother's worsening alcoholism and depression - predated even the first poetry book.

Dickey's life became increasingly sordid. A few months after his first wife's death in 1976, he married one of his students, a convicted drug addict who severely beat him. The main themes of his poetry, what he once described as the "inexhaustible fecundity of individual memory," "the forfeited animal grace of human beings" and "the hunter's understanding with the hunted animal," gradually gave way to themes of apocalyptic violence and danger.

On the brink of liver failure, Dickey quit drinking for the last two years of his life, yet he never regained the heights his poetic powers had reached in the 1960s. Dickey died in early 1997, attended in his last days by his family and many of the friends he had driven away in previous years.

Christopher Dickey is himself an accomplished writer, though of the nonfiction variety. He acknowledges that he was in great part driven in his work as a foreign correspondant for the Washington Post by the need to escape his father's overwhelming personality. He was so driven, in fact, that he spent the better part of the 1980s in a "fog of adrenaline," covering hot spots of war and political terror: Libya, Beirut, El Salvador, Nicaragua. His brief accounts of his experiences in these danger zones are some of the most interesting parts of this book.

This journalistic training surely honed Christopher Dickey's sharp eye for detail. He describes William F. Buckley Jr., for example, as "running his tongue along his teeth like a lizard waiting for a fly." He also evidences a healthy skepticism about his sources as he tactfully but firmly untangles conflicting accounts of his father's past, most of which originated from James Dickey.

Christopher Dickey does not spare his own analyses, never losing sight of his own biases. "Or maybe," he admits after trying to establish the origins of his father's fascination with guilt, "it was only I who felt that way."

And yet, Christopher Dickey is very much his father's son. He has a genuine, almost physical appreciation for James Dickey's poetry and poignantly juxtaposes his father's verse and life.

"Summer of Deliverance" is a tale of redemption. The title refers not only to the summer of 1971 when the movie was filmed and James Dickey's success took on a destructive life of its own, but also to the summer of 1994 when Christopher Dickey finally returned to his father's side in order to rebuild the bridges that had been destroyed by 20 years of alcoholic haze.

Although too late to save his 73-year-old father wasted away by fibrosis of the lungs and liver disease, Christopher Dickey did recover the man he deeply admired and who had made his childhood so exciting and magical.

Tess Lewis' translation of Peter Handke's "Once Again fo Thucydides" will be published by New Directions this fall. She writes essays and reviews for the American Scholar, the Hudson Review and the New Criterion. She has a master's degree in English Literature from Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes Scholar.

Pub Date: 8/02/98

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