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Stephen SmithSummer of Deliverance is full of pain and rue, and they make it a powerful piece of work, but that final reconciliation is the image it's hard to forget.
— Globe and Mail
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What becomes a genius most? Not much, on the evidence of Christopher Dickey's trenchant, beautifully written memoir of his father, poet and novelist James Dickey. Dickey, who died last year in South Carolina at the age of 73, was the bestselling author of Deliverance and winner of the National Book Award for poetry in 1966, a hard-drinking, hard-living, womanizing wild man with only the most tenuous grasp on reality and "a burning desire for consequence," according to his son.
"My father was a great poet, a famous novelist, a powerful intellect, and a son of a bitch I hated," Christopher Dickey writes, "and that last fact was just a part of me. It was a cold knot of anger that I lived with, and that helped drive me to do the things I wanted and needed to do in my own life. I became a foreign correspondent" — Dickey fils is currently Paris bureau chief for Newsweek — "as far from him as I could be." It's a rare child writing about a celebrity parent who realizes that every drunken obsession, every heartless betrayal, every lie and ghastly act was somehow necessary, even imperative, to the lives of both generations.
James Dickey grew up in Atlanta under the eye of a German grandmother who terrified him with tales of Struwwelpeter ("The scissors man always comes/To little boys who suck their thumbs") and whose response to any event, large or small, was a brisk, "Es muss sein. Es muss sein" ("It must be. It must be"). Summer of Deliverance is not his son's attempt to "understand" James Dickey, but the account of that attempt — more specifically, of the successful effort father and son finally made in the two years before Dickey's death to come to terms with one another after a lifetime of disappointment and a 20-year estrangement.
"There was no way to get at him without filtering his experiences through my own," says Christopher early on, "my memories of his parents, my adolescence, my wars, my middle age ... The more I sifted through his life and mine, the more I tried to bring my father to myself, the more I realized that what I was looking for lay somewhere between truth and imagination." Imagination was the grease that drove the wheel through all the Dickeys' lives — the "man-god-father," the long-suffering mother, the bewildered kids and worshipful students and drug-addicted lovers who trailed in the dust of Dickey's star: "In life, my father believed he'd thrown in his lot with poets, so nothing else had to matter ... But the poem was the poem, I thought, and what we lived was what we lived. We ought to be able to keep that straight."
Vain hope. "No true artist will tolerate for one minute the world as it is," James Dickey told his son, quoting another literary wild man, Friedrich Nietzsche. It is the measure of Christopher Dickey's own imagination that he neither excuses nor condemns the Great Man, content with a remorselessly detailed, cold-eyed reminiscence that mysteriously emerges — you can't imagine how — as a deeply loving portrait and a kind of benediction — "only the truth as it is," says Dickey. "As it must be."
David Kirby The New York Times Book Review Angry, affectionate...both gut-wrenching and hypnotic. A father-son conflict worthy of the pen of Sophocles.
Joseph P. Kahn The Boston Globe As unsentimental a father-son memoir as one can imagine. James Dickey may have died a broken man, but he was given a tremendous opportunity to get at least one thing right. By the evidence of this book, he succeeded, too.
David Bottoms The Atlanta Journal-Constitution An exquisite balance of blistering candor and healing grace....Writing so wonderful that it simply transcends the limits of the genre.
Warner Bros. had built a dirt road to a dark laurel thicket by the river. It was a rough, steep track that got slicker and more dangerous every afternoon, when rain poured from the skies. The trees were enormous, forming a thick canopy hundreds of feet in the air. It was a rain forest, right here in the mountains of Georgia. Its floor was so shadowed that small plants found it impossible to grow in the thick loam of the rotting leaves. The mountain laurel was not shrubbery but a collection of trees twisted like gnarled fingers reaching for the light. The whole effect was beautiful and threatening. This was where the rape scene was going to be filmed. The script called it "Resting Place."
It is the second day of the story. Ed and Bobby in one canoe have gotten separated from Lewis and Drew in the other, and they pull over to the side of the river to wait for the others to catch up. Coming at them out of this dark forest they see two mountain men, one of them carrying a double-barreled shotgun.
One of the mountain men, the smarter of the two, was played by Bill McKinney, a serious character actor whose main obsession off the set seemed to be looking after his body. Each morning he swallowed dozens of vitamin and mineral pills, and when he talked to you he'd study with casual fascination the veins and sinews standing out on his own forearms. Burt claimed he saw Bill running naked through the Kingwood golf course in the early mornings.
The other was Herbert "Cowboy" Coward, who had worked with Burt a few years before at one of those Wild West shoot-out shows in a rickety amusement park in the Smoky Mountains. Cowboy was no actor, but the script called for the character to be missing his front teeth, and Cowboy looked like his had been knocked out with a ball-peen hammer. The character had to seem at once terribly stupid and terribly frightening, Cowboy could do that. He never left character. But when he talked, he usually stuttered, and when he tried not to stutter, words would come out in weird orders. "You ain't a'goin any damn wheres" was a line that stayed in the movie. "I'm g-g-gonna lay a b-b-big long dick right in your mouth" was one that didn't.
For the first few days at Resting Place, a full crew was on the set. There were some problems with new lights that the cinematographer brought in. The preparations were slow, conditions uncomfortable. A lot of people were getting sick in the constant damp and the changing temperatures. A couple of the gaffers who'd been working in the water day after day were getting lesions like jungle rot. Others were busy spreading calamine lotion on poison ivy, chigger infestations, mosquito bites. At first there were a lot of jokes about snakes, but there were a lot around, and soon they were taken seriously. We'd see cottonmouths in the water and big rattlers sunning themselves on the higher, drier stretches of the road. One day, as I was walking with the hair stylist from the set to the riverside mess tent for lunch, talking about the tensions that were growing around the scene that was coming, and not really thinking about where we were putting our feet, I saw a shape in the middle of the path just in front of us. It was fatally still. Its back was patterned like leaves. "Freeze," I said, and touched the hair stylist's shoulder. Her foot stopped in midair, inches above the copperhead. The snake's sullen, slow-moving skull lay like an arrowhead in the black compost, its body thick and passive. One of the lighting men decapitated it with a shovel and skinned it. We knew there were others around, waiting.
The stars rehearsed, memorized lines, or practiced canoeing. All of them were getting pretty good at it, and out on the river, most of the day anyway, at least there was sun. But at Resting Place the mood was getting darker. Ned Beatty no longer played the happy fat boy around the set. He was getting harder to talk to, brooding, concentrating.
The day of the shooting, Burt and Ronny weren't called. The press, even the studio's photographer, was barred from the set. Donoene the hair stylist and Cindy the nurse were asked to go watch the river.
There is a full rehearsal that tells us what's to come. One of Boorman's great talents is the way he orchestrates the movement of his actors through the frame, and the movement of the camera around his actors. His cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond, sets up a master shot in which the actors go through the entire scene, and the camera takes it all in. Ed is pushed up against a tree and strapped there by the neck with his own web belt. McKinney takes a big hunting knife Ed carries and asks him how he'd like his balls cut off, then cuts a line across Ed's chest just to watch him bleed. Bobby is standing at a distance. McKinney tells him to drop his pants. Cowboy points the shotgun at him and gives a big grin that is no less horrifying for being so ludicrous, so hungry. When he's stripped to his jockey shorts, Bobby panics and tries to run. McKinney chases him; Bobby is trying to scramble up a steep hillside on all fours, but the earth and leaves slip away beneath him. McKinney grabs him, pushes him up the bank for a few feet, then follows him, pawing him, squeezing Bobby's ass and his breasts, sliding and falling back down into the rotting leaves. He grabs Bobby by the ear and the nose like a pig and half drags him, half rides him to a decaying log, forces him to lie over it, and rapes him.
One of the assistant directors called me from the sidelines and had me follow the actors through the scene. I was going to stand in for Ned while they set up the lights and the track for the camera. I didn't have to take off my clothes. All I had to do was go through the general motions, standing on the marks set up during the rehearsal, crawling as if in slow motion up the steep bank covered with leaves. No one led me by the nose, or rode me like a sow. But I had to lie down over the log, with the wood pressing into my stomach, and there were no jokes that could be made, there was nothing for anyone to say, that could keep me from feeling humiliated. I couldn't wait for this day to be over. But it was only beginning.
Jon and Ned, McKinney and Cowboy come back onto the set. They've been looking for a way to match dialogue to action, and somebody has the idea of making Ned squeal as McKinney forces him over the log. "Squeal like a pig.... Squeeeeal!...Squeeeeal!" And Ned does, in terror at first, and then, slowly, horribly, the squeals become groans of pain. And finally Boorman calls, "Cut." Then the action is run again, and again, each time growing more grotesque.
At lunch there were several nervous, risqué jokes. There was some kidding about McKinney's getting carried away. Ned tried to snap back out of character, to relax. But it wasn't working. And that day, and for the rest of the time he was in North Georgia, he seemed to have changed, as if whatever sadness or insecurity he'd covered up before as a man, as Ned Beatty, just couldn't be contained any more.
In the afternoon there were more shots of the same scene, but now from different angles. I wanted to go somewhere else, but I had to stay available to stand in, or lie down, or kneel for every new camera setup. I didn't watch the shooting any more, but I couldn't get away from the sound.
That night I called my father. I was sick of the film, sick of the whole story. And I wondered why the hell he had to have this homosexual rape. "I had to put the moral weight of murder on the suburbanites," was what my father told me. It was what he always said. He had to portray the mountain men as such monsters that the suburbanites would decide not only to kill, but to try to cover up their crime. Lewis can shoot McKinney in the back with an arrow, and look around at this forest about to be inundated by a dam, and say, "Law? What law?" and every man watching will think, Yeah, bury the son of a bitch.
I understood that was the way it was supposed to work. But I didn't think my father understood what had happened that day filming by the river. In the book you can read the rape scene and know it happened, but you get around it and go on, and get other things out of the novel. In the movie — it was becoming what the movie was about, it was the thing everybody was going to remember. "Squeal like a pig!" Not Lewis's survivalism, not the climb up the cliff, not Ed's conquest of his own fear. It was all going to be about butt-fucking.
"You're wrong, son," my father said.
There was something else that I wanted to tell my father on the phone, but I couldn't bring myself to say it. We were starting to hear from our trailer-park friends that there were a lot of people in these mountains who didn't like this film we were making. And you didn't know who might get it into his head to teach some of these movie people a lesson. There were plenty of real mountain men out there, with real guns. The director and the stars were all secure up at Kingwood; the rest of the crew were together at the Heart of Rabun. But I was here at this bungalow motel with my little family. We were all alone. And I was the son of the man who wrote the book.
I was scared. Scared enough to leave. But I stayed, because more than anything else I was afraid to admit how scared I was.
Each morning we struggled and slid down to some part of the Chattooga, and each evening we crawled back to Clayton. But the lingering depression that started in Resting Place grew worse. The work was no longer new. People had gotten to know each other too well. Even the river seemed to have run out of surprises.
Then we changed rivers.
On the mythical Cahulawassee there is a deep gorge not far downstream from Resting Place. The four suburbanites bury McKinney and head back out on the water with no idea what lies up ahead. The sound of the rapids is rising in their ears when Drew, in the lead canoe, looks like he's been hit by something. Without any warning he tumbles over the side. Now they are all caught up in a rush of white water too powerful for any of them to handle. One of the canoes is broken in half. The other tumbles through the falls. By the time they reach still water at the bottom of the gorge, Lewis's leg is horribly broken. Drew has disappeared. And Bobby and Ed think he was shot. The other mountain man must be up there on the cliffs above them, waiting, they think. It's up to Ed now to save their lives, and the only way he can do that is to climb the side of the gorge at night. He puts his bow over his back with the razor-sharp arrows in a quiver attached to the handle and starts the long ascent through the dark.
The actual Chattooga didn't have a suitable location for this action. But Tallulah Falls, not far away, was perfect. There was a hydroelectric dam about a half-mile upstream with gates that could adjust the ferocity of the torrent pouring through the gorge to suit the needs of the shot. The flow could be reduced to a trickle if need be. But it was still a dangerous place. The first half of the falls ended in a deep pool that you could swim or paddle across easily when the current was turned down. But the only way to walk to the other side of the gorge was on a slick, slightly submerged retaining wall twelve inches wide, with the pool on one side and a ninety-foot drop on the other. Everyone used the wall, holding on to a little rope for security. I still don't know why no one slipped when the water was low, or was washed over the precipice during filming when the river swelled across it in heavy waves. Maybe it was the luck of people who'd started to quit caring.
Burt, the former stuntman, wanted to take his own risks, do his own "gags." For the breakup of the canoes, special-effects man Marcel Vercoutere devised a catapult to launch Reynolds thirty feet in the air, hurling him toward the pool. He was well padded, but he was still pretty badly beaten up on the rocks. Jon Voight took to climbing the lower levels of the cliff without any safety equipment. One day Jon was about twenty feet above the crew when he lost his hold and tumbled back off the rocks. A prop man was able to break his fall, barely, but stood frozen for a few seconds before he let Voight go. Everybody was frozen. The exposed blade of a hunting arrow on Jon's bow quiver was a breath away from the prop man's throat.
It was like the whole film was becoming some kind of macho gamble in which each man was out to prove he could take the risks the characters were running, characters that James Dickey had only imagined.
At the top of the gorge, 150 to 250 feet above the rocks, the risks were even greater, and everybody played. As they searched for the best camera angles, Boorman and Zsigmond leaned way out over the edge of the precipice, and only rarely put on safety harnesses. Lives were risked to position lights, or to saw off a twig that blocked the lens.
In the story, Ed reaches the top of the cliff just before dawn. He sees the mountain man, rifle in hand, peering at the river below. Ed draws down on him. His hand starts to shake, just as it did with the deer. The mountain man sees him. Ed's only going to get this one shot. The mountain man fires, Ed releases, and you're not sure for several seconds if the arrow has hit him or not. Then the mountain man turns. You see the arrow in his chest and he falls to the ground. But Ed doesn't leave him there. All this killing, all these crimes have to be buried by the river. He uses a rope to lower the mountain man's body down the cliff and sink it in the pool.
The special-effects men thought they'd use a dummy for the scene of a corpse dangling and twisting at the end of a cord high on the side of the cliff. But the dummy looked too much like a dummy. "Would Cowboy do it himself?" someone asked as the mannequin was dragged back up over the ledge. Cowboy took a look at the drop. It was about two hundred feet at this point. He fingered the thin rope that would hold him. He shook his head. He took a swig of the Pabst Blue Ribbon beer he always had close at hand, and sighed, and nodded toward the dummy. "Well," he said, "I g-guess if he c-can do it so c-can I."
Members of the crew and the artificial family at Kingwood began to go home. An assistant producer, both assistant directors, a camera operator, and two nurses left for reasons of health, or weariness or frustration. Burt's Numero Uno left, too, during the most dangerous part of the filming. But it was so important to him to be seen with a woman, even if no woman was at hand, that one day he came to the set in Tallulah Gorge with a handful of love letters written to him by women who'd slept with him. He passed them around to the crew for their reading enjoyment. One collection was from a pair of girls who called themselves Franny and Zooey. Another, more depressing set of letters was from an exotic dancer in a Newport News service club who was trying to launch her son's career as a musician by having him play backup during her routines. Burt was going to be her ticket out of all that, she thought.
The filming moved back to the Chattooga for a last sequence on the roughest section of the river before the four surburbanites arrive on the still waters of the lake that is rising behind the fictional town of Aintry. One morning everybody arrived on the set to word that someone had been shooting at the trucks the night before. No one was hurt. Everyone was a little spooked. It added to the sense that the whole production was racing against time, against some impending disaster. But we were on the homestretch, and almost too tired to care.
When the shooting was on the river, the stand-ins were usually left waiting at pickup points to meet the actors' and camera crew when they came in off the water. We'd been most of the day at one of the roughest sections of the Chattooga when a heavyset kid everyone called Chicago borrowed a raft from the prop department and suggested we try shooting the rapids. It was midsummer now, and the only place you could see that was cool was in the water. We watched a couple of other members of the crew bounce downstream in inner tubes. They dropped over a ledge of about ten feet, twirled around for just a second in a whirlpool, then bounced out and headed on down the river. It looked like a safe enough thrill.
Chicago and I got into the raft and kicked out from shore. We hit the current and started to twirl slowly, picking up speed as we approached the drop. Now we were over the edge. And down. And the raft filled with water and we started to spin. It wasn't sinking, but it wasn't moving out of the whirlpool either. It was agitating and banging like a tennis shoe in a washing machine. One of the boys onshore threw us a rope, and Chicago grabbed it and went over the side. I saw him resurface downriver and get pulled in by the others like some enormous salmon. I was gulping water under the falls, and the raft was spinning and shaking too fast for me to think of anything now except how I was going to get out of it. I knew I couldn't make it swimming. I knew the hydraulic tumbler would drag me down to the bottom. I had to have the rope. The boys onshore were shouting and signaling. They were going to throw me the line, but I was supposed to tie it to the raft so they could pull it out. They threw. After a couple of tries, I caught. They left the line slack. But as the raft spun, the rope wrapped around my chest, my arms, my neck. I struggled to get it off, tried to find someplace to tie it, but it looped over my head and neck again. The water pounded from above, boiled up from below. The raft felt like it was going to tear apart. I freed my neck of the rope again and wrapped the end around my hand and went over the side. The current pushed me straight to the bottom, banging my body on the rocks, twirling me at the end of the cord that tightened like a noose around my hand and wrist. And then I was back on the surface, and being pulled in to shore. I guess I looked like hell: as gray as the rocks by the rivers ide. "We thought we'd lost you," said Chicago. "Me, too," I said.
It was about as close as I'd ever come to dying, at least at that point in my life, and that evening I tried to tell my father all about it. But he seemed to have other things on his mind. He was back on the scene. Back in the movie.
The shooting was almost over, and he'd been given a part to play on screen. He was going to be Sheriff Bullard, who doesn't really believe the story these city fellas tell him about what happened on the river — "How come you boys to have four life jackets?" — but lets them go anyway.
My father had never acted before. Not as such. And it embarrassed me then to watch him on the set. When I watch the movie now and see those scenes I think he was just about perfect: he is big and menacing, and there is a little of the Winslow sheriff in him; but there is also this genteel insecurity as Bullard tries to cope with the hinted atrocities taking place in his county, and there are several times in his brief appearance when he is just so much like my father, even the best of my father, sober and thoughtful and picking his words with real care, that I am glad just to be able to see him.
We were into the last days on the set. There was a last scene to shoot in which my father and I appear together, although it was later cut from the movie. Ed and Bobby and Lewis are called back up from Atlanta to the dam at Aintry. Lewis is on crutches. All of them are wearing business clothes, all have come to see a corpse on a stretcher covered by a sheet. Sheriff Bullard reaches down and lifts the shroud to show them the body of — you're not sure. It could be one of the mountain men. It could be Drew. You don't know and you never do see. Ed wakes from the dream.
I was the corpse under the sheet.
Everyone was counting the hours until shooting was over. Some read scripts for future films, some wondered where their next jobs would come from, and a couple looked forward to retiring soon. The stars spent much of their time playing golf and gambling together, competing and performing still, but taking fewer risks. Voight and his girlfriend, Marshalene, were over at the Boormans' a lot, Ned and Belinha awaited the birth of their child. Ronny spent his evenings picking and singing for the country-club set at Kingwood. I had the impression Burt was picking up any woman who came to hand. He also went around buying property. Tom Priestley, the editor, secluded himself with a Moviola at the Heart of Rabun to turn out a rough cut from thousands of feet of film.
Then, when my father had finished his part and was getting ready to leave, he and I were very cordially invited to Boorman's house one morning to see what there was to be seen in the makeshift basement projection room. We were alone as we watched the product of three rugged months of work thrown on the screen. We drank beers, one after another. We took breaks between reels, and after the first couple Jim Dickey was ecstatic. By halfway through the movie he was shouting out loud; then, at the climax on the cliff top, he went completely quiet except for two brief moments when, his hand over his mouth, acting awestruck, he breathed, "My God. Oh, my God."
He was faking it, I thought. Trying to convince himself. He had lived with this story — we had lived with it — all these years, and then it had all been taken over by other people and made into something else. Jim Dickey wouldn't let anyone change a line of his poetry, and he'd been ferocious defending every comma in the manuscript of his novel. And now this. It was a good movie. Very good. But it wasn't the one he had had in his head.
The last reel over, the last beer drunk, we stumbled from the dark recesses of Boorman's cottage into the glaring Georgia summer light. We said goodbye to Boorman's family and walked up to Kingwood's desk. My father asked for his check, flirting with the pretty receptionist. She soon found the bill. "Warners is going to pay for this," he said. "I don't want to see the total." The girl laughed and slapped her hand over the sum as my father signed. Her little finger was missing.
Outside, I helped my father fit his tape recorders, bows, and typewriter into his car. He was smiling. "I think we've really got something in this film," he said a couple more times as he climbed into the driver's seat. He drove out past the golf course, onto the highway, and home to Columbia. A few days afterward, I followed, leaving behind Clayton's Hollywood-in-residence, its country clubs, dirt farmers, mountain men, and white water, leaving behind the country of the nine-fingered people.
Deliverance did not hit the theaters for another year. There were technical problems with the scenes where Ed climbs the cliff. They were shot in the day, but were supposed to look like night. They did not. In the final version there is a weird, solarized halo around Voight throughout the sequence. There was also a dispute about the script. Boorman had changed so many lines during the shooting — "Squeal like a pig!" — that he wanted to share the writing credit, and the writer's money. The conflict went to arbitration, and James Dickey won. He got to keep all of the credit, all the cash.
When at last Deliverance, the film, was at hand, I had to realize that James Dickey had not made this movie, he had let it make him. This man, this father-poet-god, who had always demanded of himself, and of me, such perfection, had settled for artistic compromises that he would never in his imagination have tolerated — or forgiven — in another poet, in a student, in his child. And he was not only settling for less, it seemed to me, he was reveling in the result.
The tremulous sense of uncertainty, the inchoate anger that I'd felt all through my adolescence began to focus now on the idea of betrayal. I felt the righteous fury of any young man whose ideals have been sullied, and, added to that, the ferocious intolerance that came with being James Dickey's son. And all of it was turning on him. Yet I could not get away. The attraction was too strong. I was drifting like a satellite in an erratic orbit, circling close, circling at a great distance, circling always within the pull of his enormous gravity.
I would go with him, in the end, even to the theaters where Deliverance was showing. 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."
Copyright © 1998 by Christopher Dickey
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The Canoe Beneath the Hammock
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The Sea and Old Men
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The Nightmare Life in Death
Walls of Books