Saturday, October 9, 2010

Tweeting "Deliverance"

It was the river that made me do it; specifically, the words James Dickey used to describe the river.  I'd barely set foot inside Deliverance when Dickey's prose-poetry began lapping up over first my ankles, then my knees.  Within a matter of pages, I was swept away by the current.

This was not at all what I'd been expecting.

For years, I'd heard Dickey's 1970 novel was a must-read, but like all those other "must-reads" on my list, it had gone unread, the dust on its shelf serenely undisturbed.  Several years ago, I'd seen the movie with Jon Voigt and Burt Reynolds, so I could hold my own in cocktail-party conversations or at beer gardens during writing conferences.  I knew it was about four Atlanta men--Ed Gentry, Bobby Trippe, Drew Ballinger, and ultra-macho Lewis Medlock--and their harrowing three-day canoe trip down the fictional Cahulawassee River in northern Georgia.  I knew it was an outing rife with arrows, whitewater, and sodomy.  I knew Dickey was primarily a poet, but would always be remembered for his fiction (much like Thomas Hardy).  I knew Deliverance was an impassioned protest against the symbolic rape of the land by developers (the Cahulawassee is slated to be destroyed by a downriver dam months after the men raft down its rapids).  I knew it was supposed to be good.  I just didn't know how good.

Narrated by Ed, Deliverance runs along from first page to last in what feels like an unbroken confessional babble, words spilling one after the other in a stream of never-ending imagery and meditation on the human condition.  There is no stopping once you set foot inside.

By the end of the second sentence, as the men unroll a map on a bar table, I had already whipped out my ballpoint pen and started scribbling the margins.
It unrolled slowly, forced to show its colors, curling and snapping back whenever one of us turned loose.  The whole land was very tense until we put our four steins on its corners and laid the river out to run for us through the mountains 150 miles north.
As I read, the novel grew stronger, like it was one of Lewis' muscles flexing and rippling across the page.  Dickey's prose has the same coiled power as the outdoorsman's flesh: "The muscles were bound up in him smoothly, and when he moved, the veins in the moving part would surface."  That sentence is startling for both its homo-eroticism as well as the way the words fall so easily off the tongue.  In that same scene, where Ed and Lewis are bathing in the river, Dickey gives us these wonderful sentences:
The river was very cold; it felt as though it had snow and ice in it, and had only just turned then to water.  But it was marvelously clear and alive, and broke like glass around you and came together unhurt.
A lesser writer would have stopped short, leaving off that marvelous, essential detail of the water "coming together unhurt."  Dickey's talent as a poet is everywhere in Deliverance.  He writes in elegant bursts of language, self-contained images tailor-made for stand-alone quotes.

That is what brought me to Twitter.

My enthusiasm for Deliverance spilled over and I started to share my favorite passages in 140-character-or-less messages on the website (where you'll find me as @davidabrams1963).  In the past, I hadn't made very good use of my Twitter time--mainly posting links back to this blog and the occasional re-tweet of someone else's far more pithy post.  I know entire novels have been composed, snippet by snippet, at Twitter; and now there's even someone with a whole lot of time on his or her hands who is tweeting the complete works of William Shakespeare (@iam_shakespeare).  But for me, the site was just a place for clever Tweeple to telegraph abbreviated enigmas.  (This was before I discovered @SteveMartinToGo and his characteristic wit boiled down to tweets: "Just did CSI cameo. Went well. But got up, saw CHALK OUTLINE. What? Miscommunication about role. EMMY CHANCES DASHED.")  I saw little relevant use for Twitter and thought maybe I just didn't understand it.

But then, I came across a short passage in Deliverance and decided to tweet my enthusiasm: ("'She had good hands; they knew me.'  Best.  Sex.  Scene.  EVER.").  Soon, I was spreading my 140-character love for the book on a regular basis.  As I read the novel, I started evaluating sentences for their ability to squeeze into a Twitter window.  Near the end of the book, my tweets diminished, but that was only because Dickey held me fast to the page and I could not be distracted from that final day's plunge down the Cahulawassee with the shattered men.

Here are the screenshots (bear in mind, they go in reverse order, working back from the end of the novel).

(I got a little confused in the count of "moments" here)

(Bonus: includes a dinner menu tweet!)

(Moment #1 was that previously-mentioned sex scence)

Some of Deliverance's best prose couldn't be tweeted and I was reluctant to break a quote into more than two tweets.  Here are some of my other favorite passages:
The highway shrank to two lanes, and we were in the country.  The change was not gradual; you could have stopped the car and got out at the exact point where suburbia ended and the red-neck South began.  I would like to have done that, to see what the sense of it would be.  There was a motel, then a weed field, and then on both sides Clabber Girl came out of hiding, leaping onto the sides of barns, 666 and Black Draught began to swirl, and Jesus began to save.  We hummed along, borne with the inverted canoe on a long tide of patent medicines and religious billboards.  From such a trip you would think that the South did nothing but dose itself and sing gospel songs; you would think that the bowels of the southerner were forever clamped shut; that he could not open and let natural process flow through him, but needed one purgative after another in order to make it to church.  (pg. 48)

A slow force took hold of us; the bank began to go backward.  I felt the complicated urgency of the current, like a thing made of many threads being pulled, and with this came the feeling I always had at the moment of losing consciousness at night, going toward something unknown that I could not avoid, but from which I would return.  I dipped the paddle in.  (pg. 82)

(On the first night as the men are sleeping in their tent)  I could hear the river running at my feet, and behind my head the woods were unimaginably dense and dark; there was nothing in them that knew me.  There were creatures with one forepaw lifted, not wanting yet to put the other down on a dry leaf, for fear of the sound.  There were the eyes made for seeing in this blackness; I opened my eyes and saw the dark in all its original color.  (pg. 96)
Deliverance is a full-immersion novel, as engulfing and as full of color as the blackness outside that tent, and Dickey surrounds your senses with such breathlessly beautiful sentences that you don't know how deep into the words you've gone until you realize you're not breathing.  This is not the macho back-to-nature adventure thriller its reputation would have us believe, it is something else altogether.  I don't know of any class in which to place the novel, except as a hybrid of the prose and poetry genres, shot through with equal parts Faulkner and Stephen King.  It is gothic, it is meditative, it is horrifying, it is pristine.  It is profane, it is sacred.  And it is never, ever dull.

1 comment:

  1. I still have the original copy of Deliverance I bought in 1970, which I reread in 1995, and it's everything you claim, David, a true landmark.