Before I read Deliverance or saw the movie, I heard James Dickey read from his novel at USC’s Longstreet Theater. Jerry Savory of Columbia College was giving me a lift to the bus station, now an art deco bank.
“Dickey is reading from Deliverance at the Longstreet Theater right now,” he said. “Want to go?” It was 1974, two years after the movie came out. I had time to kill, and it beat waiting in the Blanding Street bus station for an all-night local to Charleston, West Virginia.
We walked into the darkened theater —standing room only—where the north Georgian’s voice floated over the vast hall. Dickey was deep into the story, at the point where the Atlantans discover Drew’s body downstream. To escape their awful dilemma, Bobby and Ed sink Drew with stones, knowing the rising impoundment will forever drown the truth. The absorbed audience sat quiet as stone.
We were moving toward the white, light water and were very close to it when I saw Drew’s body backed up between the rocks and looking straight at us … I looked at Drew’s hand floating palm-up with the guitar calluses puckered white and his college class ring on it, and I wondered if his wife might not like to have the ring. But no; I couldn’t even do that; it would mean having to explain. I touched the callus on the middle finger of his left hand, and my eyes blinded with tears. I lay with him in my arms for a moment weeping river-water, going with him. I could have cried as long as the river ran, but there was no time. ‘You were the best of us, Drew,’ I said loud enough for Bobby to hear; I wanted him to hear.
‘The only decent one; the only sane one.’
Throughout the theater, women dabbed tissues to their eyes.
Deliverance established Dickey’s reputation as a popular novelist—not a poet—in the minds of many. To me, a naïve twenty-five year old, he was a writer, pure and simple. And that was enough. Being a Georgian also and harboring writing dreams myself, I knew I had to meet him someday.
Seeing Dickey at the Longstreet Theater was a turning point in my life, only I didn’t know it at the time. Nor could I know he would write the foreword for my first book fifteen years later. Then again, I didn’t know I would walk out on what some considered a writer’s dream job one days, a reckless act that would, in fact, lead me to Dickey.
In October 1973, I was near the end of my master’s studies at the University of Georgia, when my department chairman, Dr. Juanita Skelton, a bulky, brusque woman called me into her office. “I’m going to give you 10 hours’ credit for teaching six months at a woman’s college in Columbia, South Carolina.”
I began teaching at Columbia College in January 1974. I wasn’t much older than my students and the six months turned into four eventful years. Teaching at a woman’s college carries beautiful benefits but you shouldn’t make a career of it. I had a serious itch to write for a living, and it was time to leave. In 1978, I applied to what is now the Department of Natural Resources for a position as a scriptwriter for natural history films. To get the job, I had to survive an interview with a tough Georgian, John Culler.
Culler, bearded, tall and lanky, with a gunslinger’s bearing, resembled Josey Wales. He had made a cheap flyer into South Carolina Wildlife, the country’s best conservation magazine in its day. He and Billy DuRant, the man I would work with, interviewed me over lunch at a West Columbia diner with a beautiful name—The Sunset Grill.
I worked at South Carolina Wildlife nine years. I learned a lot about writing and even more about people. And when I had learned all I could, I left.
One steamy afternoon, thunderclouds gathering, a book contract in hand, I tallied my freelance earnings on a yellow legal pad. On August 19, 1987, I left to conquer freelance writing, a world of odd assignments and books where James Dickey and I would at last meet.
Dickey cut a wide swath and his shadow loomed over Columbia. Over the years, I had seen him in restaurants, on TV, and read about him in Bill Starr’s book section of The State. He casually dismissed his drinking escapades, the stuff of legend. “People say that the good feeling that alcohol gives you is false—but all you have to do is live a human life to know that, in many instances, a false good feeling is better than none at all.” I agreed with him 100 percent.
In 1989, Robert Clark, Steve Bennett, and I co-authored South Carolina, The Natural Heritage, for the USC Press. Bennett, from Thunderbolt, Georgia, knew Dickey’s wife, Deborah, who was also from Thunderbolt, and through this connection and $800 of USC Press money, Dickey agreed to write our foreword. From 1989 on, we built a friendship.
I interviewed him for Reckon, a Southern culture magazine, in 1995. Sitting in his wingback, frail but fortified by stacks of books, he told me how language caught his ear.
“What my father liked most about the law was the forensic rhetoric, the courtroom rhetoric,” said Dickey. “He had a set of books, Classics of the Bar, which gave transcripts of all the important trials from Jesus up to “Fatty” Arbuckle in 1929.”
A lawyer, Eugene Dickey read speeches from Clarence Darrow and Robert Ingersoll to a young Dickey and across the many decades Dickey recalled Ingersoll’s opening statement in defense of some Southerners accused of murder.
“The Southern boys were out on the coast in the gold mining fields, Sutter’s Mill,” said Dickey. “Ingersoll’s opening statement went something like this. ‘I’m very happy to talk to the gold miners. I’m very happy, today, to be your guest in this courtroom, guest of you hardy souls who earn your precarious living by wresting the precious metal from the clutches of the miserly rock.’
“My father said, ‘Now Jimmy isn’t it wonderful that a man can express himself that way.’ I replied, ‘It sure is, daddy. That’s great; read it again.’ And that’s how I got into writing, but all ways to get into writing are strange, all ways.”
Settling deeper into his chair, Dickey took up the South and its writers. “Down here, we’ve had more of a concerted front of writers. In the old days, storytelling was the only entertainment people had. All Southerners are very garrulous. They’re very social people, and that’s partly because they lived in isolation on their own farm. When they saw another farmer and his family or got together at a church meeting, they always had plenty to say. It was inevitable that stories would develop.”
But now, in 1995, that oral tradition seemed to be dying in the South and so did Dickey. Thin as a reed, he looked nothing like Sheriff Bullard. Dickey had said the South was in danger of becoming one giant Rexall, and surely the last gasp was coming. The generic culture of superstores, malls, and cable television was devouring the South Dickey had known.
“Every time a new factory locates down here, everybody whoops it up—so many more new jobs and this, that, and the other, but look what it’s doing to the culture. The juke box music comes in and the traditional, Southern, Appalachian ballads go out.”
Dickey, of the Georgia mountains, grew up hearing the twangs of bluegrass music and he didn’t like contemporary country music nor other improvisations. He was a purist. He never even used a word processor, just cheap Japanese typewriters. “I’m a traditionalist. I think it’s too much machinery between you and what you’re writing, with those electronic devices.”
No matter, though. Creation depends on inspiration, and a typewriter works as well as Microsoft Word when the alchemy of creation swirls about the mind.
“I’d be sitting in a room by myself and I would get what I knew immediately was a good idea. I guess that’s what used to be called inspiration. Something would just flash into my mind that I knew would work. Those were the happiest times.”
Somewhere between Sorento and Amalfi, Italy, after a meal of pasta and wine, Dickey was about to nap when the plot and action for Deliverance took root. The seed, however, had been planted years earlier in Georgia on the Coosawattee River where Dickey’s canoeing companion and Deliverance model to be, Lewis King, was fishing. From nowhere, two men confronted a lost King mistaking him and his topographical maps as a Revenue Service officer. Dickey’s mind took it from there.
The man never doubted his subject matter. “Love, sex, death, decline, and several other themes are truly the things worth writing about,” he said. “Birth, growth, death, procreation, anxiety, and fear—those are constant to everyone.”
A Regrettable Act
Decline is inevitable, but we can hasten it. And exploit it. I wrote 231 words in Reckon about Dickey’s drinking. I wrote that his drinking “led to overindulgence and damage” because I knew people expected that kind of disparagement. It seemed “artsy.” I’ve regretted it ever since.
Reckon’s managing editor sent Dickey the magazine a day before I received mine. He called and told me I had hurt him and his family. His words stung me. I gave him a wide berth for a while. I wasn’t sure what to say to him. The months rolled by and I struggled: what to do, what to say.
A year passed.
One Monday morning, while shaving, the news reported Dickey had died the night before. I felt an immense loss. And guilt. In time, I put it all behind me but then Henry Hart came out with his vitriolic 811-page biography: James Dickey, The World As A Lie. There, on page 733, my damning words rose like demons:
“Dickey acknowledged how destructive alcohol had been to himself, his family, and everyone associated with him. In July, he told a writer for Reckon magazine that, while alcohol had enhanced his confidence for years: ‘I am forever off drinking. God could not get me to drink, Him and Jesus combined. That’s over. Dickey decried his lack of judgment in the past and advised his interviewer: ‘you ought to quit, too. Don’t let it do to you what it did to me.”
The cold blade of truth stabbed me. I had given Hart ammunition. Worse, I was a hypocrite. I recalled an icy December night in 1989. Robert Clark and I went to Dickey’s home with twenty-seven copies of South Carolina, The Natural Heritage for Dickey to sign, Christmas gifts. Intending to drink with the poet, Robert and I brought expensive bourbon as a gift: Jack Daniels Single Barrel Whiskey I believe. I remember the bottle was pretty.
We arrived on time. 7:30 p.m. Dickey met us at the door in his pajamas. He had no need to drink further. He took the bottle and placed it high on a shelf. Then after signing the books with his ornate signature, he asked us to join him in his study. There, to my amazement, he asked if we were from the South.
“You know I’m from Georgia, like you,” I said, “and Robert is from Charlotte.”
“Good,” he said, grabbing his guitar. “Then you know the old Southern gospels. Let’s sing.”
And with that, he launched into “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.”
I was standing by my window, On a cold and cloudy day, When I saw the hearse come rollin’ For to take my mother away.
Robert and I stood there mute. Dickey stopped strumming.
“You boys said you were from the South, c’mon, let’s go,” and with that he took up the song, singing with all his might.
Will the circle be unbroken? By and by Lord, by and by
Robert and I involuntarily took a step backwards and looked at each other for help. Dickey stopped again, stood, and stared with anger.
“I can’t sing a lick,” I said in apology.
“Me neither,” said Robert.
Dickey moved toward the hall. “Boys, I’m a busy man. I’m expecting a call from my agent any minute” and he showed us the door.
In the space of 15 seconds Robert and I were out in the cold, a precarious stack of books in our arms, wondering, exactly, what had hit us. Wondering what happened to our night of drinking with the poet and novelist. We’re sure of what happened to the Jack Daniels.
That cold December night was soon forgotten. We stayed in touch, and I proposed a feature to Reckon and Dickey agreed to an interview. Toward the end of our 1995 interview, Dickey discussed his failing health. “I met the Dark Man. I’m very much aware of mortality. I’d like to think I have some more years, maybe 10, 12, or 15 at the most, but that’s in the lap of the Gods.”
The Gods were tightfisted. He had but nineteen months.
Dickey died January 19, 1997. Three days earlier he had taught his last class. He left a novel unfinished and he left critics. Some colleagues felt he was a horse’s ass. He, on the other hand, detested pedants and often hyphenated the “F-ing Bomb” to “professor.” He left eloquent defenders, too.
Jeffrey Meyers wrote in The New Criterion: “James Dickey, handsome, blond and blue-eyed, formidably energetic, large, and larger than life, scaled the heights. College athlete, air force navigator, advertising executive, guitarist, archer, hunter, teacher, performer and poet laureate, winner of a Guggenheim fellowship and a National Book Award, he covered the Apollo launching for Life and read his poetry at President Carter’s inauguration.”
Dickey was an icon to me. I didn’t care what his critics thought but I sure cared what he thought. He encouraged me to write fiction, and I could relate to him. I never forgot, for instance, his stand on writing commercials and poetry. “I’d sell my soul to the devil by day and earn it back at night.”
To this day, when asked by the curious how the freelancing life goes, I respond, “Every night is a Saturday and every morning is a Monday.” Were he here, Dickey would nod and say “Amen.”
Six months after Dickey died, one afternoon in 1997 during a summer thunderstorm, a student and I drove to his home so she could say she had seen Dickey’s house. There was no home, just rubble left by bulldozers. We trekked through the rain and returned with three bricks. She kept one. The other two sit in my office, monuments you could say. That was eleven years ago. A new home sits at 4620 Lelia’s Court today, overlooking Lake Katherine. No marker, nothing, tells the passersby that the poet and author of Deliverance created literature and art here. What a shame.