Discovering James Dickey
(September 22, 2004)


by Dede Norungolo

Recently, I was invited to join the children of James Dickey, author of Deliverance, for a descent of the Chattooga River. The trip was by car and on foot, so I accepted the offer. Christopher, Kevin and Bronwen Dickey had converged at Clemson University's Strom Thurmond Institute for "A Celebration of James Dickey," which offered each of the siblings a chance to discuss their father - a poet, athlete and former Clemson student.

While I felt an odd Southern connection to the film, Deliverance, I certainly had no knowledge of Dickey's other work. I paddled my way through Hurricane Ivan's early warning signs across the Clemson campus for the afternoon sessions of the event.

Indeed, I did not know of "The Shark's Parlor," "Bums on Waking," or "Pursuit from Under." I did not even know the man who tossed audiences into an eddy of relentless fear and uncertainty was also known for his poetry.

Later, as I anchored myself alongside Dickey's children at a rock shelter near Bull Sluice, I listened as Christopher talked of being present for the filming of the movie released in 1972, which starred Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight, Ned Beatty - bless his heart - and Ronny Cox. The eldest Dickey son is the author of several books including Summer of Deliverance, Innocent Blood and The Sleeper, which has recently been re-released. In addition, he is the Paris Bureau Chief for Newsweek.

Kevin, a prominent radiologist, lives in Connecticut with his wife, Carol, and their children. He also finds time to write and is published within the medical community.

Daughter Bronwen has paid tribute to her father in the pages of Newsweek. At the time of his death in 1997, she was 11 years old. She now resides in North Carolina. She presented "The Truth as a 'Lie': James Dickey and the Spirit of Poetic Revelation" at the start of the Clemson program dedicated to her father, a former Tiger football player.

It is appropriate that on the Deliverance tour, John Lane, a kayak enthusiast and author of the recently released book, Chattooga, guided the group. John, a professor at Wofford College in nearby Spartanburg, traverses the river through this flowing personal essay.

We walk toward the angry rapid. It is raining, creating a sense of drama as the thunderous roar of the river reaches us when the pavement ends under our feet. We are, by no means, in a precarious situation like Dickey's Lewis Medlock, Bobby, Drew or Ed. No, indeed, we are simply enthusiastic bibliophiles and lovers of all things literary, although I suspect we could defend ourselves if necessary.

Christopher relives a run through Bull Sluice, when as a youth on the movie set, he and some others swiped a raft. Mostly he recalls that the first boat did not shoot the rapid, but rather grabbed the boat, expelling passengers down, under and out through the water. Christopher recalls that his raft, too, became a spinning top between boulders. He was pulled clear.

Christopher, Bronwen and Kevin pose for pictures at Bull Sluice. Hurricane Ivan's rain cannot begin to dampen their enthusiasm.

With John at the helm, we head for Woodall Shoals, where significant portions of the movie were filmed. The lasting impressions, however, for Christopher were of skipping stones with actor Jon Voight. The eldest Dickey scans the shore for a smooth, flat stone that he releases. One, two, three, four - then, it is gone. Kevin helps his wife, Carol, in her assault on the river. Bronwen tells me her father was 58 when she was born.

In one afternoon, transcending the Chattooga has moved beyond Dickey's bestselling novel of four men "in a violent test for manhood" to an altogether greater picture of his literary legacy. If Deliverance was a hydraulic, holding Dickey's works too tight, then his children have offered us the greatest tow by sharing their father's poetry.


Dede, a journalist whose work has been recognized by the Tennessee Press Association, is currently a graduate student at Clemson University. The freelance writer and photographer also serves as a publicist for musicians and various nonprofit agencies in the Upstate.

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