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Overwhelming tension with an underwhelming narrator
on 11 January 2010
This novel begins strangely and rather flatly, with the lead character (Ed Gentry) spending a day in the office as an Art Director. Although this is a clever slice of suburban calm before the coming storm, I had trouble believing that Ed Gentry could ever be an advertising creative. His career choice didn't seem to gel with his character, it felt like someone else's story poking through - so I Googled "James Dickey" and, sure enough, the author spent several years in an ad agency before he wrote Deliverance. This doesn't wreck the novel, by any means: the stark comparison of sedentary office life with survival in the wild works pretty well... it's just the shoehorned nature of Ed's profession that bugged me. It didn't seem to fit or ring true. He would have worked better for me as a salesman or a number cruncher... not as a middle-aged graphic designer working on a campaign for "Kitt'n Britches" underwear.
In fact, Ed's character is my only complaint about this book. His companions Drew, Bobby and Lewis are well-rounded and well-conceived. So are all of the local yokels and the menacing Aintry police force. The story itself is a great adventure yarn and really keeps you on the edge of your seat, even if you've seen the excellent 1972 movie and know what's coming next. It's a story I could almost believe was real, unfolding horribly before my eyes - if it weren't for certain aspects of Ed Gentry, forcing me to suspend my disbelief.
Take, for instance, his sudden transformation into Alpha Male. Ed's laborious climb up a rock face and subsequent assassination of a hillbilly felt like wild fantasy, to me. Perhaps his exhilaration at his own cunning and skill was meant to be interpreted as a primal adrenaline rush, but it struck me as a deep current of arrogance coming directly from the author... James Dickey imagining himself in such a survival situation and how he would pull through with true grit to save the day. Ed's character under pressure is actually quite irritating - always knowing the right thing to do or say - and Dickey's story rewards this hubris when Ed, Bobby and Lewis get away with their crimes scot-free.
Now that I've read the book, I can see that Ed's character was toned down for the movie. On-screen, his transformation is much more subtle and led almost entirely by abject fear: he doesn't turn into a self-righteous Superman when he steps up to lead the pack. Dickey wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation, so he clearly took the choice to patch up this flaw for the big screen... and I think Deliverance the movie hits perfect pitch as a result.