Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Summer of Broken Things: "Deliverance" Turns 40

Yesterday at my theology blog, I was musing about how many objects we've broken this summer, some fixable, some not: a computer, two watch bands, a lawnmower, a floor lamp, and more wine glasses than I can keep track of.

Today I have destruction on the brain because 5 years ago, Hurricane Katrina would have crossed South Florida. Ah, 2005, the year of brokenness: my mother-in-law died after suffering a series of horrifying medical mishaps, my spouse left his toxic job, Hurricane Katrina caused our ficus to fall over on top of our shed which housed tools and bikes and leftover stuff from all sorts of projects, and then, Hurricane Wilma slammed into us in October, damaging our roof and the roofs of many other homes, churches, and businesses. It was the kind of year that I am amazed to have survived at all, and I hesitate to say that, because I know how many ways it could have been worse: I didn't lose my spouse or my marriage or any family members or my health. In short, I suffered losses I could survive.

This morning I read a great article about James Dickey, an article which focuses on his spare novel, Deliverance. It took me back to the summer of 1991, the summer that I studied for Comps and wrote my dissertation. I took breaks to watch videos and work on counted cross stitch projects. My spouse and I had one car, and one day, when he had the car at work, I really wanted to watch a movie. Luckily I could walk to the library. Unfortunately, the movie selection was slim.

I checked out Deliverance, but I didn't expect to find it very interesting. I expected to have it on as background noise while I stitched. I didn't get much stitching done. I couldn't tear my eyes away from the movie.

I'm not a big James Dickey fan, I must confess. I don't care for most of his poetry, and I find his prose unreadable. His literary reputation is tarnished for me by the person that I saw on the campus of the University of South Carolina. I'm not sure I ever saw him sober over the 5 years that I was there.

My opinion of him is, however, tempered by my knowledge of how supportive he was of young writers. Generation after generation of creative writers at USC can attest to his generosity. My friend worked for him as his personal assistant one summer, and he was always gentlemanly, which I didn't expect, given his reputation and some of his lecherous behavior on campus.

So, my feelings about Dickey are mixed, but that movie is incredible. As a Southerner descended from mountain folk, I have mixed feelings about the depiction of the backwoods characters, and yet, I've been in the backwoods, and I know that there are people there, as there are everywhere, that you don't want to meet in a dark place. Or, as the movie reminds us, even in a well-lit place.

Deliverance is one of those American tales: men against nature, men against savage men, men against themselves. And yes, I'm using the term men in its gendered sense.

The one upside to surviving hurricanes is that I'm reminded of how humans can pull together after battling nature. I think of those post-Katrina and post-Wilma times, and I remember sitting on a porch, talking to my neighbor who had been tormenting us with his wild parties, some months every Saturday. He talked about his quest for a good elementary school for his child, and I saw him as fully human for the first time. We had a chain saw, and he had downed trees. We pulled together. He helped us clear our yard, and we helped him with his. He rarely has wild parties anymore.

So far, the hurricane season this year has been fairly quiet, and I hope it continues to be so. I'd like to avoid the community building experience that a fierce hurricane can deliver. Deliverance reminds us that savagery is never far from the surface. But this summer, I'm rereading Barbara Kingsolver, who reminds us that community can be formed in the most unlikely circumstances. I'm rereading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and reflecting on how the land can nourish us, even if we don't have much of it. It's a good reminder, in this summer of savage weather.

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