Sunday, January 30, 2011

Saturday's Best Book Diary: DEATH AND THE GOOD LIFE and DELIVERANCE, Richard Hugo and James Dickey

The first novel by poet Jim Dickey and the first novel by poet Richard Hugo have a lot in common, though you might not think so.  I love the uncredited cover on the Avon paperback edition of Death and the Good Life: A Mystery, pictured above, but the first edition hardcover had been issued in a bland beige dustjacket with only a badly drawn axe and the description, A Murder Mystery By The Acclaimed American Poet Richard Hugo.

Didn't any of its editors consider its literary possibilities, even though they may be harder to discern?  Whoever drew that face of a human skeleton on the Avon cover had the right idea.  It is a work of naturalism, at least as this reader sees it.

Deliverance, first published in 1970, is now highly acclaimed both as a thriller and as a literary masterpiece.  It was also transformed into a highly popular and now classic film.  The first edition dustjacket had that wonderful eye.

Epigraph: a passage from the book of Obadiah: "The pride of thine heart hath deceived thee, thou that dwelleth in the clefts of the rock, whose habitation is high; that saith in his heart, Who shall bring me down to the ground?"
When I was reading James Dickey's novel, Deliverance, and I came upon the archery passages, it struck me that I had read this before.  Indeed, they seemed to have been taken directly from Eugen Herrigel's Zen in the Art of Archery.

I recently sent for the DVD of the movie made from the book.  In an interview on the DVD, Burt Reynolds says that Dickey gave him a copy of Herrigel's
Zen in the Art of Archery on the set.

This DVD has a nice selection of other back segments as well, several interviews with the cast and crew, with Dickey and later with Dickey‘s son.  There was a clash of egos on the set, most importantly between Dickey and John Boorman, but also between Dickey and Burt Reynolds who didn’t like Dickey referring to him as Lewis, his character's name, rather than Burt. Boorman says that macho and egocentric Burt Reynolds was perfectly cast to play the egocentric Lewis in the film.

The biggest clash was a clash of visions. Dickey saw his book and the film as a study in naturalism, while director Boorman saw it as a cautionary film, an ecological film, man raping nature.  Boorman says that at first, Dickey promoted the film by going along lines in front of the theater, telling patrons what a great movie they were about to see. Years later, Dickey wanted to remake the film and do it his way.

I liked the ambiguity as to whether Jon Voight’s character shoots the right man or not. Ed Beatty’s character later asks him, “Are you sure you shot the right man and not just some guy out there hunting?” Neither Beatty or Voight are certain they recognize him, and there is a scene where Voight’s character looks inside his mouth because the only thing he recalls for certain is that the man was toothless. He finds that the man he killed has teeth, but then he discovers that the teeth are false. At the end, he still doesn’t know.

The hand coming out of the lake at the end, reprising the upraised hand of the mountain man whom they buried, was not in the book. Burt Reynolds said that he didn’t like this at the end until he saw the movie with an audience and heard the gasps of people affected by this. The director said that he wanted it to represent both the repressed guilt of the killer inside us and the hand arising out of the unconscious.

Body, mind, and spirit.  Animal man, middle man, and spiritual man.

Drew is the spiritual/civilized man.  We don't see him die but he disappears as soon as the narrator sides with Lewis--or "comes to ground," to paraphrase the epigraph.  Lewis is the animal man.

Ed is the middle man, an everyman, a mind-dominated man who must make a decision between following Drew or following Lewis.

Bobby at first seems to be a civilized man like Drew, but unlike Drew, Bobby has no principled or spiritual depth and without Drew he reverts to an animal man.  Dickey says that he represents "superficial man."

Above is the fine cover of the latest edition of Richard Hugo's Death and the Good Life: A Mystery.

First paragraph:  "I imagine the three men having a good time.  I imagine them singing."

The novel was first published in 1981, eleven years after Deliverance, and its theme is the same, a novel about modern man's denial of his animal nature and the consequences that entails.  Naturalism.  It is all over the novel, symbols of it here and there, with smaller nuances hidden in the descriptive details that you might not notice, such as:

A cat who looked like a superb survivor ran across the street.  He looked tough enough to eat people and smile while he did it.  With the gray sky and the wind and the empty field, I got one of those lonely chills you get when you think you've found a sad, sad, place, a place where loneliness goes when it leaves the cities.
For here, Hugo subverts the formula.  Here is a lawman protagonist who is a poet by avocation.  So gentle is he that he has compassion for the people he arrests, falls for many sob stories from speeders, wants to ignore petty crime whenever he can.  The one law enforcement role in which he excels is in the solving of murders, an activity of the mind.

The good civilized life, dominated by the life of the mind, is what the protagonist, Al Barnes,  yearns to continue.  But one of the three men, mentioned in the opening line, is killed while out fishing.  One witness who may have seen the murderer is Shelly Percy Bailey, a drunk and cartoonish professor/poet.  James Crumley-like, you might say.  Or James Dickey-like.

The witnesses describe a tall woman, "a Big Mother," an old Amazon-like woman with green eyes and wild gray hair, some six feet eight inches tall and carrying an axe.  At one point she's described as "a force."

Richard Hugo was too fine a poet not to mean this "Big Mother" as symbolic of the violent forces of Mother Nature, the dark side of the Eternal Feminine.  Just when you think the case might be solved, and everything explained away, it isn't.  This is a killer that strikes randomly, and in different guises.  It is not one particular killer but three, the furies, and you cannot solve the problem by jailing or killing anyone in particular, because the force is karmic, and one act of violence leads to another.

After the hacked body of the second man mentioned in the opening lines is discovered murdered, the town grows hushed and tense.  Barnes feels the need to connect with his animal nature,  the only way he knows how.  He goes to see his lady friend, a bartender:
Arlene poured me some coffee.  We forced grim smiles at each other.  In our minds the same thing was going on, I was sure.  We were both glad we were alive and had each other, and we were both feeling a bit guilty that we were feeling that, instead of grieving about Robin Tingley. .
"You know what?  The whole business makes me want you more and more, like all the time, like right now."
"Me, too.  It makes me feel exactly the same."
  We went into the back where she kept a small single bed and gave the world our only answer to the horror that had struck the little town of Plains.
So, the first two men in the trinity of the three mentioned in the opening line of the novel have been killed.  Where does that leave the third man?

I'm not saying that this novel is the equal of Deliverance, but it is a novel with a great many literary merits.  And the lesson in both of these cautionary tales is the same: that we should not live in denial of our animal nature, we should not live in denial of death.

Say your life broke down.  The last good kiss
you had was years ago.  You walk these streets
laid out by the insane, past hotels
that didn't last, bars that did, the tortured try
of local drivers to accelerate their lives.
Only churches are kept up.  The local jail
turned 70 this year.  The only prisoner
is always in, not knowing what he's done.
---from "Shades of Gray in Philipsburg"

The prisoner, in Richard Hugo's poem above, is everyman, under a sentence of death.

1 comment:

  1. Deliverance is a masterpiece, underrecognized and likely underread in many contemporary lit courses. The movie is a masterpiece too, though I like the book better.

    The novel could be read on a number of levels, and there should be more discussions about the novel. A discussion could start with the very first scene -- a map of the journey and the four men putting their steins of beer one on each corner in order to keep the map flat -- a symbolic image of the four corners of the earth, represented by the four zodiac signs of Aquarius, Taurus, Leo, and Scorpio, which correspond respectively with Drew, Bobby, Lewis, and Ed, and each man will in the course of the action echo the respective zodiac sign's attribute! Now, how do I mean by that? Hope this would lead to a lengthier discussion on a literary forum!