Sunday, February 18, 2018

Deliverance by James Dickey (96 down, 4 to go)

There was a kind of comfort in knowing that we were where no one – no matter what issues were involved in other places – could find us… ~ Ed Gentry


You might call Deliverance a tale of man vs nature, or perhaps man vs man, but truthfully, I think it is man vs himself – the limitations of his own body and mind.


It begins innocently enough, with four men, Lewis, Ed, Drew, and Bobby who set out for a weekend canoe trip down an extremely remote section of the Cahulawassee river in northern Georgia.  They are respectable family men – city men – and looking to get a glimpse of near wilderness before the entire river valley is flooded with the construction of a dam. Only one of the four, Lewis, is fit for this type of trip.

Ed knows Lewis better than the other two. He likes and admires Lewis, but he thinks him a bit fanatic. Lewis is a survivalist, not the bomb-shelter type, but a man who trains his body and mind to overcome. During the drive to the launch site, Ed explains his own more comfortable philosophy:


I am mainly interested in sliding. Do you know what sliding is?

No. You want me to guess?

I’ll tell you. Sliding is living antifriction. Or, no, sliding is living by antifriction. It is finding a modest thing you can do, and then greasing that thing. On both sides. It is grooving with comfort.


Ed, Drew and Bobby, are trusting Lewis to get them through any difficult challenges. But they don't anticipate the life and death struggle against the forces of nature and other forces more sentient and malignant they will face.


Dickey seems to believe that modern men have sublimated their primal instincts and have become what Lewis describes as “lesser men”. Dickey, via Lewis, seems to believe that most men will be unfit to survive if tested.


Oh and by the way, Lewis is badly injured and incapacitated. It is up to the others to find their primal strength – or perish.


It is riveting. Ed, the first-person narrator, describes the wilderness so beautifully, that in spite of the danger, I wished I was there. He describes the charm and mystique of the locals with delicacy, and the urgency of survival crisis with terrifying effect. It is troubling, but also hopeful in a most unusual way. Deliverance is the call of the wild for humanity.


My rating 4 ½ stars



My edition of deliverance, is one of my most prized books: a Franklin Library, leather bound, autographed Edition (not signature facsimile…genuine autograph).



Another excerpt:


What I thought about mainly was that I was in a place where none – or almost none – of my daily ways of living my life would work; there was no habit I could call on. Is this freedom? I wondered. ~ Ed


Film rendition: there is a very good 1972 film, starring John Voight (Ed), Burt Reynolds (Lewis), Ronny Cox (Drew), Ned Beatty (Bobby)…and a small role by Dickey as the local sheriff. It is very true to the book, perfectly cast and portrayed. It was nominated for numerous academy and golden globe awards, though it didn’t win any. Marvelous little clip from the film HERE


Friday, February 16, 2018

Native Son by Richard Wright (95 down, 5 to go)

Of all things, men do not like to feel that they are guilty of wrong, and if you make them fell guilt, they will try desperately to justify it on any grounds; but, failing that, and seeing no immediate solution that will set things right without too much cost to their lives and property, they will kill that which evoked in them the condemning sense of guilt. ~ Boris Max, Lawyer for the defense

Native Son is the story of Bigger Thomas, an African-American man living in the South side of Chicago, 1930s. I knew this was another story about the racial divide in America and was expecting something like Invisible Man or Go Tell it on the Mountain.

But no, this was quite different, and much more troubling.

Bigger lives in poverty with his mother, younger brother, and younger sister – no father in the picture.
He hated his family because he knew that they were suffering and that he was powerless to help them.

Bigger is a petty criminal and a bit of an idler. However, social services arrange a job as chauffer for a wealthy white family, and maybe Bigger has a chance, until the naiveté and recklessness of the privileged do-gooder daughter leads Bigger into a catastrophically compromising situation. Bigger knows he won’t stand a chance in the courts, so he reacts in desperation.

In reality, Bigger never had a chance even before the present tragedy. Society had already determined, “his type” were trouble makers; denied any real chance to make good, the expectations usually come true. I believe there is an unfortunate truth in the message. There are rare exceptions who overcome, but if society expects the worst of someone, it is often a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Native Son is a disturbing and enlightening portrayal of this dark truth.

In a bit of foreshadowing, shortly before the catastrophic events of the story, Bigger tells a friend:
Sometimes I feel like something awful’s going to happen to me

From the moment of his “crime” Bigger begins an existential journey – somehow, he feels empowered. It is as if for the first time he is in control of his own life. He feels
…like a man who had been somehow cheated, but had now evened the score.

He hopes to escape punishment, for his innocent mistake, but he is all the time realistic that he probably will not. He almost wants to let the hated white masses know what he has done. This is only scratching the surface of Bigger’s thoughts and emotions. He is calculating and reckless, cowardly and defiant, frightened and peaceful, confused and deliberate.

I’ve read no commentary to suggest this, but I suspect the main character’s name was meant to convey that the story was “bigger” than its character.

Native Son is an important book, I couldn’t put it down, but it wasn’t a lot of fun. I’m sure it wasn’t intended to be. Have you read Native Son or Richard Wright? Your thoughts?

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel satisfies the following category from the Back to the Classics Challenge 2018: A classic by an author that’s new to you.

Disclaimer – I grew up in middle-class white suburbia not far from Chicago. I usually feel a little trepidation at commenting on a book like this. Reading a novel, about racial inequality does not give me an understanding of minority suffering. My moral outrage at Bigger’s plight does not atone. My words even now are probably patronizing and self-serving.

When does it end? How can it end?

History seems to be saying it ends – painfully slowly. I believe books like Native Son help – albeit painfully and slowly.


For the first time in his life a white man became a human being to him…

He had to make a decision: in order to walk to that chair he had to weave his feelings into a hard shield of either hope or hate. To fall between them would mean living and dying in a fog of fear.

He felt he wanted to live now – not escape paying for his crime – but live in order to find out, to see if it were true, and to feel it more deeply; and, if he had to die, to die within it.

Yet he felt that he could not fight the battle for his life without first winning the one raging within him.

But he is product of a dislocated society; he is a dispossessed and disinherited man; he is all of this, and he lives amid the greatest possible plenty on earth and he is looking and feeling for a way out.

He was not allowed to live as an American


Saturday, February 10, 2018

Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Macbeth is a tragedy by Shakespeare. The date of writing is unknown; the first performance is believed to have been 1603. It is set in late 16th Century Scotland.

The title character is a general in the Scottish army, and has just returned from an important victory to the great favor and generosity of King Duncan.
So that’s a happy beginning (unless you are Irish), but this is a tragedy – and things go south pretty quick. Macbeth encounters three witches who prophesy that he will be given a new title, and then become King. Fellow General Banquo also receives a prophesy that though he himself shall not be king, there would be many kings amongst his descendants.

Macbeth , Banquo, and the witches
by Theodore Chasseriau

Macbeth does not take the prophecy seriously until King Duncan rewards him with a new title. Still everything is pretty happy, but now that he’s beginning to believe the prophecy, Macbeth tells Lady Macbeth and things just get – well – in a word – tragic.

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth take proactive steps to bring the prophesy about. One act of villainy and betrayal leads to another, and another, and more.
False face must hide what the false heart doth know

Spoiler alert: Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are scumbags.

The guilt of treachery begins to trouble Macbeth, that and the ghost of one of his recently betrayed friends. Lady Macbeth is at first pretty aloof to any remorse, but later she is driven mad by guilt.

It doesn’t turn out well for either of them, as their growing group of victims join forces to, determined to…
Let’s make us medicines of our great revenge

In some ways, Macbeth is less tragic than some of Shakespeare’s tragedies. There is justice in the end, and some brilliant ironic twists. Those meddlesome witches, give Macbeth a few more prophecies that made him think he was invincible – but that in fact signaled his doom.

As with any work of Shakespeare, Macbeth contains phrases that are now part of English vernacular:

…be all and end all
…what’s done is done
And not really English vernacular, but this phrase, that Lady Macbeth utters to Macbeth…screw your courage to the sticking place…is quoted in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.

There are also lines from Macbeth, that other authors would later use as the title of their works.

One of the witches chants: By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes. (Something Wicked This Way Comes is the title of a Ray Bradbury story).

And finally, from Macbeth’s soliloquy:
Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing
(The Sound and the Fury is the title of a William Faulkner novel)