Daddy Was a Low-Down Drunken Skunk

But he sure could write a nice poem.

While visiting his father’s home in July 1996, Christopher Dickey burrowed into the heaped relics his father, the poet James Dickey, had accumulated in the garage. Christopher encounters long-forgotten gifts, expired appliances, a torturer’s fantasy of knives, bows, and arrows. And, of course, he finds his father’s poetry. Drafts and revisions, unpublished manuscripts and published volumes, some recalled with pride (the National Book Award­winning Buckdancer’s Choice), some with embarrassment (the drunklost whelp Zodiac). “Manuscripts for poems from forty years ago,” Dickey writes, “were stained by melted suppositories.”

Summer of Deliverance

by Christopher Dickey (Simon & Schuster, $24)

The description is significant, because in Summer of Deliverance, Dickey tells the story of a poet who shat himself. James Dickey once ranked with Robert Lowell as a likely successor to Frost, Stevens, and Roethke, seems to have stunk up the lives of the people in his immediate vicinity, and his son’s announcement here is that indeed, a poet’s stinks the same, fouls a family the same, and requires the same wiping-up. Though we continue to find this sort of celebrity peekaboo interesting, it is not particularly startling. (Or it shouldn’t be. During James Dickey’s Bumbershoot appearance at the Bagley Wright Theater nearly a decade ago, he invited a woman in the audience who had complained about his sexism to “come on down here, and let’s see who can twist the other’s arm behind the back, and break it. Then we’ll consider equality.” A lighthearted riposte or verbal signpost to a private hell?)

The book is structured around Dickey the son’s homecoming archeology. He scrapes the past of its memories, sheds them onto the page, and then circles back around to the two-car memory palace for refreshment. These recollections become increasingly painful as the son’s awareness of his father waxes, and dad’s sobriety wanes. We rise with “Jim” Dickey as he ascends through the ’60s and ’70s to a rarefied layer of American poetic fame, and we watch it disarm his humility. Dickey “barnstormed for poetry” through these years, swooping into town, pluckin’ some guitar, croonin’ some verse, tossing in the sheets, and then moving on to the next gig. Christopher misreads his father’s fiction of the same name as an autobiographical account of those tours, and guesses that the habits and excesses it describes also resulted in a poetic skidmark called “Adultery.” Christopher recalls his unease listening to his father publicly recite the poem while he, the son, sat beside his mother. Christopher hears it as a symptom of his family’s dysfunction, not as poetry: “And fuck you, dad,” he judges in this book. Big Jim may have worked in advertising once, but he never wrote for Hallmark.

The story reaches a kind of equipoise between private squalor and public glory with the filming of Dickey’s 1970 novel, Deliverance. Once director John Boorman dismisses the meddling poet from the set, it’s time to strap on your K2s: We’re going downhill. The contentments of father and son are held in a stagnant ratio. Chris feels himself a hapless puke alongside the chest-thumping, sex-feasting Poet Jim. As the father descends into illness and misery, the son achieves a bittersweet peace. The memoir opens with Christopher’s need to “get as far away from him as possible,” and there’s a surprising emotional coldness to his writing. The most powerfully rendered scene, in fact, may be the moment on the Deliverance set when young Christopher was slung over a log as a stand-in for Ned Beatty in preparation for the film’s notorious sodomy scene.

As with any I-remember-the-artist memoir, the author plays on the biographical fallacy: Because art and behavior originate in the same single character, we expect our judgments about each to cohere. This invites sham psychologizing, and is indifferent to the character of poetry, which, as the critic Michael Wood has written, “is a form of freedom, not because it deals with the imaginary, but because it reconstructs the real in the mind . . . a protectible playground” exempt from the demands of 12-step programs, marital fidelity, and, sorry to say, paternal compassion.

Summer of Deliverance might have been a coherent study of James Dickey as a literary artifact, with his self-immolation at its cruel center. Or it might have been a coming of age under a hard and famous father. In attempting to do both, neither story is satisfyingly told. Instead, Dickey has domesticated the poet by assigning him membership in the Wednesday-night Art Therapy Club, an average guy of average cruelties and average affections, a man who sought literary and liquid satiations for the extraordinary appetites that, today, we would quiet with a pill. We’ve seen this done to Philip Larkin, T.S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Herman Melville, and it wheedles a tiresome ditty.

Kurt Jensen’s criticism appears in the Los Angeles Times and The American Scholar.