The more I sifted through his life and mine, the more I tried to bring my father to myself, the more I recognized that what I was looking for lay somewhere between truth and imagination. Long before Deliverance, my father had begun to make himself up. And me. He would not tolerate for a minute the world as it was.
Christopher DickeyAnd you thought your family was dysfunctional. Journalist and sometime filmmaker Christopher Dickey had a problem: a living legend of poet-novelist father who, by force of personality and intellect, exerted a massive influence on everyone in his life. And when, with the publication of Deliverance, James Dickey's celebrity exploded, the shrapnel helped send his wife to an alcoholic grave and his sons into desperate flight. How to communicate with a man who has devolved into besotted self-caricature? How much paternal drinkin', cussin', whorin', and adventure can one exquisitely sensitive young man take? And how much brilliance? Dickey's faith in his creative powers made him a great poet and, often, a wonderful father. It also permitted him to vanish into the stratosphere of vanity and self-indulgence.
Two decades after Deliverance the book and film, comes deliverance the family restoration. As Jim Dickey's alcoholism and god-complex have spiraled out of control, he has become a broken old man. A second marriage has collapsed into violence and a teenage daughter is put at risk by the poison enveloping the family home. The crisis calls the author back to his father and young half-sister and sets the stage for the reconciliation and healing at the core of this lovely book.
Admirers of the elder Dickey's work will, of course, be enthralled by the biography. By turns lyrical and visceral, the book's language brings us to a vivid, even unnerving, intimacy with Jim Dickey as father, husband, and poet. As memoir, the author's candor and unflinching self-scrutiny lend the book an added weight; Chris Dickey is just as willing to lay bare his own faults and failings as anyone else's. Finally, the younger Dickey's journalistic background gives Summer of Deliverance its unique edge. The sensibility of an observer-chronicler contrasts beautifully with Jim Dickey's credo of artistic daring and self-invention. In his waning days, the father who sought not to reflect but to create worlds with his verse begs the son to remember him just as he was to make history of myth. The book has become between them a search for the truth of their family's history, of the passage of their lives together and apart. Not the stuff of Jim Dickey's primal dramas but rendered with an intensity and precision no less remarkable. The younger Dickey's struggle not merely to tolerate but to embrace and forgive to know his father, invests the book with an urgency and power well beyond that of finely wrought reminiscence. More than the biography of a celebrated literary figure, it is a delicate examination of creativity and of the power of familial bonds a peacemaking with the joys and sorrows of their world as it was.
Christopher Lawrence is a writer-researcher at Vanity Fair in New York City.