James Dickey’s best work was accomplished with ragged right-side lines. He was a justly lauded poet, but the same markers – extreme experience, surreal and ambiguous transformation, lyrical power – appear in his novels. It’s understandable, then, that the bookending chapters, and the preamble to the second section, show Dickey’s worst side: he’s in choppy water with mundane detail and thought, often and justifiably absent in much poetry but necessary in most novels. “The routine I was used to pulled at me, but something in me rose daringly above it, full of fear and feeling weak and incompetent but excited,” This is awful writing, but low-boil connection also suffers. After the long tension-drenched narrative has subsided, the reader encounters dialogue that strains emotional credibility, as in this response from Ed Gentry to his confused wife: “ ‘I don’t think so. But I’m not sure. Somebody may be after me. Also, the law may be after me. I’ve just got to tough it out. If nothing happens for a couple of weeks, I think we’ll be all right.’ “ Well, that’s sure comforting, especially since Ed’s wife has no idea what he’s not even hinting at. And she’s a tough woman, too!
Dickey’s prose shines, though, when it’s one man against chaotic elements, and the psychology of violence. He also shines with lyrical description, and many times those strengths piggyback one another, as in this quote during the long wait before the kill: “... the river in its icy pit of brightness, in its large coil and tiny points and flashes of the moon, in its long sinuous form, in its uncomprehending consequence.”
The first chapter also introduces the theme of stunted or inferior art: Ed is a competent arranger of artistic expression in his ad career (with experiences, no doubt, from Dickey’s own unhappy advertising job) but cannot come up with a generative idea; Drew is an entertaining guitarist, but without originality; Lewis is depicted as an exceptional athlete and outdoorsman, ideologically, practically, and intuitively. But even after saving the lives of two of his friends (three, briefly), the river “defeats” his superior body. Dickey, by relentless natural description, offers a convincing conclusion, weak in more theoretical novelists and poets, about the limits to personal will and artistic manoeuvring. The novel, unlike the movie, ends on a curiously upbeat note, and Lewis, with permanent limp by the placid lakefront (wonderful touch by Dickey) accepts his mortality with grace and humour.