James Dickey’s Guide to Wilderness Survival

Subtitle: Deliverance by James Dickey

I have learned a few life lessons worth remembering. The first: if you are the size of Kristen Chenoweth, rugby is not a sport you should play – find another calling. The second: live someplace warm – where it’s not 19F in April. The third: when dating someone, surreptitiously check out their bookshelf – if they don’t have a bookshelf, walk to the nearest exit. The fourth: always avoid ravenous hillbillys – have you seen Wrong Turn? Scary stuff. There are valuable lessons to be learned through experience (or vicariously through film). For experiences you’d rather not have, but would still like to read about, there are books like Deliverance to satisfy your curiosity.


Some novels teach you about love, some teach you about compassion, and some teach you about survival. Deliverance offers many lessons about surviving the natural world, should you read between the lines of Dickey’s prose. Ten of my favorites:

  • Everything is more dangerous in isolation. Alcohol will, quite successfully, dull that sense of danger. Consume accordingly.
  • If an eight year old can master the banjo, anyone can. Incidentally, if you hear banjos while canoeing – paddle faster.
  • If the closest you’ve come to nature is a tree-lined sidewalk or the wilds of suburbia, don’t let yourself be talked into an isolated Appalachian camping trip.
  • Never let yourself get tied to a tree. There is no scenario I can think of where this is a good thing.
  • If two men try to kill you and one escapes, do watch out for the escapee.
  • Anything can be made sexual, even mounting a gorge.
  • If you say it will never happen, it will happen every. single. time.
  • Don’t piss off the locals.
  • Always carry a crossbow, but be careful where you point your arrow.
  • Life has ebbs and flows, often punctuated by episodes of horror and violence, but it can be quite beautiful too.

Four friends, Ed, Bobby, Drew and Lewis, set out from the big city in the hopes of reconnecting to nature and their inner masculinity. They make their way to Aintry, Georgia where they plan to embark on a two day canoe trip down the Cahulawassee River. The group begins their voyage, entering into an isolated part of the river. During the second day of their trip, Ed and Bobby are attacked. Bobby is brutalized in what must be the most infamous scene of hillbilly sodomy from twentieth century literature (‘squeal like a pig’ for those that have only seen the movie). Lewis kills one of the attackers, but the other one flees. It is here that the men begin their descent into heart of human nature’s darkness. The men wrestle with the idea of being law abiding citizens versus handling the incident themselves – setting a course for the rest of their lives, should they live long enough to enjoy them.

Dickey accomplishes a rare feat with Deliverance – a gripping, fast-paced adventure novel that is also compelling literary fiction. He contrasts moments of beautiful prose (though there are arguably a few unintentionally silly moments) with stark, violent imagery. For as lengthy and verbose a poet as James Dickey is, it’s ironic that his best known work is also his most lean. Although superficially it’s simply a story of four men, two canoes, and the wild, upon further reflection Deliverance delves into the moral ambiguity of life, the true darkness of human nature, and what it means to achieve deliverance. I thoroughly enjoyed James Dickey’s novel, but it irritates me that it is considered masculine literature – I think it does literature a disservice to assign it gender, though it’s certainly a topic worth discussing. Regardless, Deliverance is good, maybe even great. I can’t decide if its inclusion on the Modern Library’s ‘100 Best Novels in English’ (at no. 42) is ridiculously profound or profoundly ridiculous. Either way, I’d recommend reading it, preferably while vacationing in the wilderness next to a raging river, drinking an IPA, and listening to Javi Garcia‘s Nightfall. Have you read Deliverance or seen the movie? Did you read it any place fun?


There’s not much food in Deliverance, but there is alcohol – both beer and bourbon. For those of you who aren’t local (which is most of you), did you know that Colorado is arguably the beer capital of the US? There is a lot of good beer here and I am (now) a beer snob. My favorites: Yeti Imperial Stout (the folks at Great Divide know what they are doing) and Avery Maharaja.

And remember, good people drink good beer.

Image (via Avery)

2 thoughts on “James Dickey’s Guide to Wilderness Survival

    1. You should! It’s at least worth reading once. I think I found a bit more humor in it than I should of, but Dickey is generally a bit “macho” for my reading tastes.

      If you do pick it up, I hope you enjoy it. I quite liked the film as well.


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