This is the 1970 novel in which the more familiar film is based. Author James Dickey is better known as a poet than he his a novelist, having published numerous poetry books. For those who have seen the film but have not read the novel, you’re in for a wild ride. Usually, the novels are superior to their celluloid counterparts. This is another example. For those who have seen the film, the book has much more depth, the main and most important difference being that the novel is told from a single point of view, that of the character Ed. He, along with three of his buddies, decide to forgo city life for the weekend to go camping and canoeing in the Georgia wilderness to discover freedom and to connect with the wild - the “pure” wild. What begins as a weekend getaway among friends soon turns into one of the most horrific events one can imagine. I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t read the novel nor seen the film, but it’s an adventure well worth taking, believe me.
There are times where the story reminds me a hell of a lot of Ernest Hemingway’s “Nick Adams” stories, with their lush and beautiful descriptions of the wilderness; the pace of the novel seemingly echoing the pace of the river. It is with these descriptions where Dickey’s prose really shines and I’m sure it has everything to do with the fact that he is a very accomplished poet. The themes of survival and connecting with the wild are very strong here and offers a wonderful contrast with the character’s lives as “city people”. Their near condescending attitude towards the “backwoods” population they initially encounter also provides a wonderful symbol of entering a world that’s dangerous and unfamiliar; one that will put their ideas about survival to the ultimate test and each of the characters lives will permanently change after their experience.
There is a theme of hubris running through the novel: City vs Rural, Man vs. Wilderness, Man losing his “masculinity” in the modern world. There is a definite “macho” tone throughout the story but its one worth thinking about, particularly when the tables are turned for the characters. It is a very well written book and one I recommend.