Deliverance by James Dickey – a book review

DeliveranceDeliverance by James Dickey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What an amazing book! It took me completely by surprise and, without belaboring the point, it can be read as an extended metaphor for the most difficult, life-changing challenges of our lives. (Yes, I’m talking about metastatic cancer.)

I’ve seen the movie, which was an adventure-thriller adaptation of James Dickey’s book. But James Dickey‘s book is not an adventure-thriller, not in that sense. It is much, much more.

James Dickey was not only a prose author; he was also a poet. In fact, he was perhaps better known as a poet, having been a Poet Laureate Consultant to the (US) Library of Congress, among other honors, and he finished his life as a professor of English at the University of South Carolina at Columbia, where he was also poet-in-residence.

The soul of a poet sings through the prose of Deliverance. The descriptions of the river, the trees, the people and the protagonist’s inner landscape are both closely observed and stunningly rendered. The sentences are simple, the vocabulary accessible, yet the writing soars and lifts the reader with it.

Four middle-class suburban guys who like to hang out together decide to go whitewater rafting in an all-but-inaccessible part of Georgia and terrible things happen. The environment–natural and human– is trying to kill them. They have to react, they have to save their own lives and escape. At what cost?

Four men enter, three men leave. All three survivors are badly injured and at least one is profoundly changed. He is Ed Gentry, vice-president of a small advertising agency. (Dickey worked in advertising early in his career.) The story starts slowly, gently, as befits a legend of the South. We meet the men, and especially get to know Ed: his work, his wife, his son, his personal history. We start to see how his life is ordered, how he thinks, how he experiences the world.

We experience this journey through Ed’s eyes and through his soul. We become intimate with his loves and his terrors. We share his wonder at his own mental and physical abilities. We become one with him as he faces the challenge of his life and its aftermath.

Forget about the movie. Read this book!

View all my Goodreads reviews

Birthday Week 2013 – Take 3

Don’t Give Up . . . Don’t Ever Give Up. (Motto of the V Foundation for Cancer Research)

Until a much-loved friend directed me to this video, I didn’t know much about Jimmy V (Jim Valvano). He was an award-winning American college basketball coach and sports commentator. In June 1992, at the age of forty-six, he was diagnosed with bone cancer. Metastasis was diagnosed the following month.

Exactly twenty years and six days ago, Jimmy V was awarded the Arthur Ashe Courage and Humanitarian Award at the first ESPY awards. On that occasion he announced the formation of the the V Foundation for Cancer Research.

There are some great moments in this inspirational speech, but one of my favorites comes toward the end, proving yet again that cancer doesn’t kill our sense of humor; it sharpens our awareness of life. A “thirty-second warning” came up on the teleprompter, and Jimmy V said,

“They got that screen up there flashing 30 seconds, like I care about that screen. I got tumors all over my body and I’m worried about some guy in the back going 30 seconds?”

Jimmy V died eight weeks later. His grave marker is inscribed:

 “Take time every day to laugh, to think, to cry.”

Here is the speech.

Wednesday Video: Best six minutes you’ll spend today

Today’s video is Isaac Lamb’s wedding proposal to Amy, complete with music, costumes and a cast of sixty family members and friends. This will restore your faith in life, love and humanity. By the fifth minute, my cheeks hurt from smiling and lips hurt from going “awww”, and at the end I clapped my hands in sheer delight.

Watch it through to the end. It keeps getting better and better and more and more over the top.


Wednesday Video: The Power of Thought. Really.

This video from has been making the Internet rounds for the last week or so. “Impressive” is an understatement.

The star is Cathy Hutchinson, a lady who has had quadriplegia for 15 years and cannot speak, either. We see how new technology makes it possible for her to control a robotic arm with her thoughts to pick up a cup of coffee and drink from it. Look at the delight on her face! Puts many things into perspective.

Original post: – Paralysis. Original article:  Reach and grasp by people with tetraplegia using a neurally controlled robotic arm.

Old Baggage

It was a dark and stormy night last night. It is a dark and stormy morning this morning, and it’s Friday the 13th to boot. Seems like a good day to get back to writing.

I’ve neglected the blog lately because I’ve been sort of a wreck. Far too much drama going on in my personal life, and far too much old baggage falling out of the closet on top of my head. So I did what I should have done with that old baggage to begin with. I took it all out of the dark closet, and cleaned the dust away. Then I opened each package and looked at the contents.

I took out each item, shook away the mites and moths, and examined it carefully. Some of that stuff is old and useless. I tossed it out, with or without due ceremony.

Some of it I wasn’t sure about or didn’t feel up to cleaning and mending. I took note of each item, folded it carefully, packed it securely, and put it safely back on the closet shelf.

Some of what I found can be remade or even used as-is. It was to those things that I turned my attention. I took my time. I brushed each item carefully, removing the cobwebs and dust. I looked at it calmly, closely observing each fold and wrinkle, and I smoothed it. I tried it on. If it fit, I washed, mended and ironed it and gave it a place in my cupboard of useful items. If it didn’t fit, I got rid of it.

I didn’t finish going through everything, so I put what was left over back in the storage closet. But the closet is clean now and it won’t be such a daunting chore to open it up next time.

Trauma. Resilience. More questions than answers.

Writing the posts(*) about my first bus bombing has been an interesting experience. Even today, over twenty years afterwards, memories came rushing back as I re-read what I wrote. I close my eyes and see what I saw when I first opened my eyes after the chaos of the explosion. Behind the man’s shoulder that covered half of my face I see the bus ceiling, I see the spray of red not-rain. I smell fear and blood and urine. I open my eyes again. I slow my breathing,  feel my body, listen to the ambient sounds, reorient myself to here and now. The whole process takes less than five seconds. I’ve had a lot of practice.

There are many definitions of psychological trauma. One of the simplest I’ve read is “the psychological damage from uncontrollable, terrifying life events”. Some people add the criterion of “life changing”. Being in an explosion is traumatic; so is a first diagnosis of cancer or another life-threatening disease. Torture, domestic violence, child abuse, non-consensual incest. Being the victim of street crime, of sudden homelessness, of a devastating financial loss.

In 1971, I lived in Chatsworth, California, and on February 9th of that year I felt the Sylmar earthquake. I only vaguely remember the strange growling, rumbling sound that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere, but the longest lasting impression was the sense of utter disorientation I felt when I moved my foot to take a step and the ground wasn’t there. What? Where did the ground go?

I suppose my present interest in traumatic events was born of the union of the earthquake and the bus bombing in my life story. How do people keep going on after their inner world (and sometimes their outer world) is devastated? What is the difference between those who go on and those who get stuck? What is the effect on a culture subject to the repeated trauma of war, terrorism, or natural disaster?

People far more qualified than I don’t agree on these questions, but there is plenty of research on what happens when people are repeatedly subjected to radical loss of control and existential fear. But what happens when a whole population has suffered trauma over and over again? Would it be surprising to end up with a population that is aggressive with underlying depression, avoids introspection,  is distrustful of new people and new situations, and that generally acts like a bluff, blustery bully who is secretly afraid of the dark?

There is a great deal of talk lately about resilience, the capacity or ability to get back to normal after a traumatic event. Hemmingway famously said (in A Farewell to Arms) “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” True, but many others suffer pain at the broken places and are handicapped for the rest of their lives. Resilience can be conceived, perhaps, as what differentiates the two.

I wish I could create it in a lab and pour it into the water supply.

(*) Part I, Part II, Part III

The problem with surviving

More than one person has asked me why I dislike identifying myself as “a survivor”, and I’ve been giving it a lot of thought. After all, I could easily call myself a cancer survivor (Have I survived yet? Part I and Part II), a survivor of terrorism (My first bus bombing Part I and Part II with Part III being edited), and a survivor of some very ghastly childhood experiences, which I don’t intend to write about here. So why do I shrink from the word?

Three reasons come quickly to mind. The first probably comes from some sort of magical thinking: if I don’t name it, it wasn’t real. In order to be a survivor, there must have been something to survive, something that might have killed me and didn’t. Although my life today is full and rich, and my life up to now is what brought me to this point, I don’t hesitate to admit that I would have preferred not going through some of the worst bits. Greatly preferred. More than once, I have felt like shouting “Enough! Stop this n-o-w!” More than once I have prayed, “Again? Really? Are you sure you didn’t get a wrong address and intend this horror for some other Knot Telling?” So perhaps my reluctance to call myself a survivor is actually a reluctance to fully integrate my personal history.

Another reason has to do with a culture of survivor communities that we see both on the Internet and in three-dimensional life. I want to tread carefully here. These communities can be an invaluable source of support and help, and most of them indeed are. Many, many people draw huge amounts of strength from them. Survivor communities are among the best fruit of the self-help revolution, both on- and off line. At the same time, speaking only for myself, I don’t want to define myself by what happened to me and I don’t want choose a peer group just because the same things happened to them. Now that I think about it – and the reason I write is to find out what I think – more than being a distinct second reason, this seems like an extension of the first. Hmm.

The main reason is semantic. I see a continuum of being that starts at existing, moves through surviving, and culminates in living. In this schema, existing is the most basic level of life. People exist when they are physically alive but have little physical, mental, emotional and spiritual energy to invest in anything more complex.

Surviving, on the other hand, involves investing almost 100% of one’s energies in coping, dealing, getting through the immediate exigencies of life. Being in what I call “survival mode” means that while I do not have energy available for long-term goals, I am more or less creatively coping with the crisis or problem situation and taking active measures to bring it to an end or I am out of the situation and dealing with my immediate physical, mental and perhaps emotional needs.

But living – living means that I can apply all my energies to all my needs. Living means that I can flourish. Living means that I can look to the future and believe that it will be good. In fact – having written and thus discovered what I think – I suppose I am reinventing the wheel of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs with all this explanation.

Yet there is another dimension. In an often-quoted gospel verse (John 10:10), Jesus says “I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly”. As a Christian living in the Holy Land, I cannot believe that the Word who was conceived in Bethlehem, born in Nazareth, preached in the Galilee, was crucified and rose again in Jerusalem and is still being spoken in both the spiritual and the material worlds today came so that I might merely survive.