"Summer of Deliverance" is a powerful and moving memoir of anger, love, and reconciliation between a son and his father; between the journalist Christopher Dickey and the renowned poet and novelist James Dickey. Chris, best known for his reporting on wars around the world, takes us back to his childhood in his father's universe of Southern intellectuals and backwoods rednecks, of night-fighter pilots in the Pacific, poets in Paris, and martini-drinking ad men in Atlanta. And to the summer of 1971, when James Dickey's first novel, "Deliverance", was made into a movie. That tale of soft suburbanites forced to kill or be killed along the rushing white waters of a wild Georgia river was a huge success, and Jim Dickey, who played the sheriff in the movie, became an instant star. But it was also in that summer that the long, slow process of destruction-- of himself and of his family-- became clear. Poetry gave way to performance, and genius faded behind an alcoholic haze. Jim Dickey's world shrank to Columbia, South Carolina, where he taught at the university. His friends drifted, or were driven, away. So too his sons. For nearly twenty years after his mother drank herself to death in 1976, Christopher hardly saw his father. When they met, it was in passing and on neutral territory-- at a coffee shop at La Guardia Airport, at the university's faculty club. Always, Jim would be drunk. Chris had heard accounts of the horrors in his father's house: an alcoholic second wife, a little daughter forced to rely on her wits and will to survive. But Chris believed that there was nothing he could do about the decisions his father made. Then, in the summer of 1994, pushed by his own wife, Chris went back to South Carolina, back to his mother's grave. He steeled himself against all the madness he knew still lingered there, but hoped that by reuniting with his father he would find what was missing in himself. He discovered he had been right about the horrors of his father's life, but he also found a blood tie that could not be broken, a need for kinship that had to be satisfied. A few months later, as Jim Dickey lay in a hospital near death with liver disease, Chris and his brother, Kevin, and the thirteen-year-old sister they barely knew entered into a conspiracy to save him. And they succeeded. During the last two years of his life, Jim Dickey was physically shrunken and short of breath, but sober. He spoke, as he had not for years, with consistent, dazzling lucidity. He turned his depleting energy to his poetry and breathed new life into it. His wife, who had fought her own terrible battle with depression, slowly found her independence, while his daughter thrived in school. And Chris, whether on long drives with his father through the Carolina flatlands to the coast or sitting with him in the house in Columbia amidst the books, bows, guitars, and manuscripts, found in Jim Dickey's clear-eyed love the father he had missed for so long. Drawing on letters, notebooks, diaries, and Chris's explicit conversations with his father about what happened between them, "Summer of Deliverance" is a superbly crafted memoir of the corrosive effects of fame and an inspiring celebration of love between father and son.
Given the amount of emotional injury poet James Dickey (1923-1997) inflicted on himself and his family, it's a remarkable achievement that in this surprisingly tender memoir, Christopher Dickey not only discovers new love for his father but imparts it to readers as well. Arrogant, alcoholic, unfaithful to his wife, and manipulative with his children (he boasted of Christopher, "I made his head"), James Dickey emerges here as an all-too-human figure whose weaknesses are partially redeemed by his fierce passion for his art and by a late-life attempt to make amends for years of careless, destructive acts. His son's book is, among other things, a cautionary tale about the temptations of fame and money: Dickey's bestselling novel Deliverance (1970) pushed the poet to a level of commercial success he was ill equipped to deal with. The drinking got worse, the affairs more flagrant, the writing sloppier, and after Christopher's mother died in 1976, father and son seldom spoke. They reconciled in 1994; this book began as their mutual project to describe the making of the Hollywood film version of Deliverance. Good though those chapters are, it's the author's unflinchingly honest yet compassionate portrait of his father that stands out. Noted for his journalism, particularly covering Central America's gruesome civil wars of the 1980s, Christopher Dickey proves that he can plumb the intricacies of the human heart as incisively as the horrors of military conflict. His father would be proud. --Wendy Smith