James Dickey—231 Bullets

Sometimes Your Writing Comes Back To Haunt You

Before I read Deliverance, before I saw the movie, I heard James Dickey read from his novel one evening at the University of South Carolina’s Longstreet Theater, a fitting place. Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, a Georgia boy like me, gave his name to the theatre. What better place for Dickey, A Georgian, to read his story about Georgians, fictional though they be.

The evening came about as an accident. A friend with a literary bent was giving me a lift to the bus station, later an art deco bank and later, nothing. I was to catch an all-night local to Charleston, West Virginia.

“Dickey’s reading from Deliverance at the Longstreet Theater,” he said. “Want to go?” It was 1974, two years after the movie came out. I had time to kill.

“We went.”

We walked into the dark theater—standing room only—where the north Georgian’s voice floated over the vast hall. Dickey was deep into his story, where the Atlantans discover Drew’s body downstream. Bobby and Ed are about to sink Drew with stones, knowing the rising impoundment will forever cover him and the truth as well.

The audience sat still as stones beneath the Chattooga.

We were moving toward the white, light water and were very close to it when I saw Drew’s body backed up between the rocks and looking straight at us … I looked at Drew’s hand floating palm-up with the guitar calluses puckered white and his college class ring on it, and I wondered if his wife might not like to have the ring. But no; I couldn’t even do that; it would mean having to explain. I touched the callus on the middle finger of his left hand, and my eyes blinded with tears. I lay with him in my arms for a moment weeping river-water, going with him. I could have cried as long as the river ran, but there was no time. ‘You were the best of us, Drew,’ I said loud enough for Bobby to hear; I wanted him to hear. ‘The only decent one; the only sane one.’

Women dabbed tissues to their eyes.

That night, kept awake by a busload of singing Marines, somewhere near Hillsville, Virginia, a river ran through my head and I thought about what I had witnessed. It was an evening I would never forget.

In the minds of many, Deliverance cemented Dickey’s reputation as a popular novelist—not the poet he truly was. To me, a naïve twenty-five year old, he was a writer, pure and simple. And that was enough. Being a Georgian like him and harboring writing dreams myself, I knew I had to meet him someday. But would I?

Seeing Dickey at the Longstreet Theater was a turning point in my life, only I didn’t grasp it at the time. (I grasped little back then.) Nor did I know I would abandon a much-desired writer’s position one day, a defiant act that would, in fact, lead me to the poet.

The chain of events began one brilliant October afternoon in 1973 as I approached the end of my master’s studies at the University of Georgia. My department chairman, Dr. Juanita Skelton, a brusque, intimidating woman—professors scattered like quail upon hearing her high heels clop down the hallway—summoned me. “I’m going to give you 10 hours’ credit for teaching six months at a woman’s college in Columbia, South Carolina. You will do this.”

“Yes ma’am.”

I began teaching at Columbia College in January 1974. Not much older than my students, six months turned into four eventful years. Teaching at a woman’s college carries beautiful benefits but a career for me it wasn’t. I had an itch to write.

In 1978, I applied for a position as a scriptwriter for natural history films, a position I wanted in the worst way. To get the job, I had to survive an interview with a tough Georgian. I was nervous, dying inside.

John Culler, bearded, tall, and lanky, with a gunslinger’s bearing, could well have been Josey Wales in a previous life. It would not have surprised me had he turned to me and said, “Dyin ain’t much of a livin’, boy?”

Despite working for bureaucrats with the vision of a mole, he turned a cheap flyer into South Carolina Wildlife, the country’s best conservation magazine of its day. He and Billy DuRant, the man I’d work with, interviewed me over lunch in washed out West Columbia at a diner with a bewitching name—the Sunset Grill.

When you are young, job interviews feel like a walk to the gallows. The food was supposed to be very good—that’s why we went there—but I don’t remember anything about the interview except the very last question, which I thought was a trap, set by my days at the woman’s college, and about to spring.

We were on the way back to the office. Culler driving, he and DuRant ignoring me. Contemplating my fate, I sat in the back of a Plymouth Fury Commando V8, one of the best-loved police cars of all time, one immortalized in “Hill Street Blues” and “T.J. Hooker.” Just as we crossed the Congaree River, Culler turned and shot me a Clint Eastwood-like stare. “I’ve just got one more question. Do you like to drink liquor and chase women?”

Trap or not, the truth burst free. “Yes.”

Culler turned to DuRant and barked, “Hire him.”

During six years in the film production unit, I wrote a few features for the magazine. Then I became the magazine’s managing editor. Here, I wrote my first speech for a governor, Richard W. Riley. Here, I began to make contacts with the community of people needing the services of a writer. Altogether, I worked at South Carolina Wildlife nine years, developing the skills of a freelancer on the sly. I learned a lot about writing and even more about people, and I learned to dislike authority. And when I could learn no more, I left.

One steamy afternoon, thunderclouds gathering in more ways than one, a book contract in hand, I tallied my freelance earnings on a yellow legal pad. August 19, 1987, at 3:30 in the afternoon, I quit my job on the spot. Giving no notice, I walked out to pursue freelance writing, a world of odd assignments, books, and kooks—disappointment and exhilaration—where James Dickey and I would meet two years down the road.

Dickey’s shadow loomed over Columbia. Over the years, I saw him from afar in restaurants, on TV, and read about him in Bill Starr’s book section of The State. His life seemed one of readings, signings, and partying. He seemed to be soaking up life, the good life, drinking, reveling in life itself. On a day yet to come, talking to me, he would casually dismiss his drinking escapades, the stuff of legend. “People say that the good feeling that alcohol gives you is false—but all you have to do is live a human life to know that, in many instances, a false good feeling is better than none at all.”

I agreed with him 100 percent.

In 1989, Robert Clark, Steve Bennett, and I co-authored South Carolina, The Natural Heritage, for the University of South Carolina Press. Bennett, from Thunderbolt, Georgia, knew Dickey’s wife, Deborah, who was also from Thunderbolt, and through this connection and $800 of USC Press money, Dickey agreed to write our foreword. And so I met the man at last, some 15 years after he spoke at the Longstreet Theatre. We sat side by side at book signings. We shared the Georgia connection. His mere presence encouraged me to write. He was my muse.

We kept in touch over the phone and from time to time, on some pretense, I’d drive across town to his place. No longer were we strangers. I remember walking the shade-dappled sidewalks of Senate Street in 1990 when a festival, Mayfest, took place there, long before moving it to a public park killed it. Lost in thought, watching the sights, someone called my name. It was Dickey.

Slowly I built up a local writing career. Small steps, but steps forward, and one step involved an ambitious stride toward Mississippi where a short-lived magazine, Reckon, Southern to the core, published features about writers. And so, on a humid Saturday, June 24, 1995, I interviewed a Dickey in decline for Reckon, soon to cease publication.

A question had long burned in me: “How did he get into writing?”

At home, sitting in his wingback, on oxygen, fortified by stacks of books and wearing two watches, he answered me, telling me how language caught his ear. It started with his dad; he worked as an attorney.

“What my father liked most about the law was the courtroom rhetoric,” Dickey told me. “He had a set of books, Classics of the Bar, which gave transcripts of all the important trials from Jesus up to Fatty Arbuckle in 1929.”

Many times, Eugene Dickey read speech transcripts by Clarence Darrow and Robert Ingersoll to his son, and across the decades one speech lived within James Dickey. He recited Ingersoll’s opening statement in defense of some Southerners accused of murder.

“The Southern boys were out on the coast in the gold mining fields, Sutter’s Mill,” said Dickey. “Ingersoll’s opening statement went like this. ‘I’m very happy to talk to the gold miners. I’m very happy, today, to be your guest in this courtroom, guest of you hardy souls who earn your precarious living by wresting the precious metal from the clutches of the miserly rock.’

“My father said, ‘Now Jimmy isn’t it wonderful that a man can express himself that way.’ I replied, ‘It sure is, daddy. That’s great; read it again.’ And that’s how I got into writing, but all ways to get into writing are strange, all ways.”

In 1995, Dickey, thin as a reed, looked nothing like Sheriff Bullard. He had fears. Dickey, who had been exposed to the Nashville Agrarians, the Fugitives, feared the South was in danger of becoming one giant Rexall. Surely its last gasp was coming. The generic culture of superstores, malls, and cable television was eating the South he had known.

“Every time a new factory locates down here, everybody whoops it up—so many more new jobs and this, that, and the other, but look what it’s doing to the culture. The juke box music comes in and the traditional, Southern, Appalachian ballads go out.”

Dickey, of Georgia mountains, grew up hearing the twangs of bluegrass music echo across the valleys and he didn’t like contemporary country music. He was a purist. He never used a word processor, just cheap Japanese typewriters. “I think it’s too much machinery between you and what you’re writing, with those electronic devices.”

I will go to my grave believing one thing about James Dickey. Had he used a computer he would have finished his sequel to Alnilam, Crux, and another novel for sure.

I wrote 231 words in Reckon about Dickey’s drinking. I wrote that his drinking “led to overindulgence and damage.” Didn’t think twice about it. It seemed “writerly,” and I was impatient to get my hands on the Winter 2006 issue. Dickey got his first.

My phone range in the quiet moments of dusk. It was Dickey. My heart leaped. He loved the piece. I knew that’s what he was about to say. No. “Why did you have to write about my drinking? It hurt me and it hurt my family.”

His words stung me. The call ended badly. I gave him a wide berth for a while. I wasn’t sure what to say to him. The months rolled by and I struggled: what to do, what to say. A year passed. Somehow I knew I had to make amends.

One Monday morning while shaving, I heard the news report. Dickey had died the night before. I felt a loss. And guilt. From that first reading at Longstreet Theater to the foreword for my book to estrangement, and now this, the end. You can’t break a circle that isn’t complete. I knew one thing. For James Lafayette Dickey, his circle was complete at last. For him, “by and by, by and by
, there’s a better home awaiting, 
in the sky Lord, in the sky.”

In time, I put it all behind me but then Henry Hart came out with his unkind 811-page biography: James Dickey, The World As A Lie. Hart, with hair like Moe of the Three Stooges, had done exhaustive research. There, on page 733, my damning words rose like demons to renew my haunting:

“Dickey acknowledged how destructive alcohol had been to himself, his family, and everyone associated with him. In July, he told a writer for Reckon magazine that, while alcohol had enhanced his confidence for years: ‘I am forever off drinking. God could not get me to drink, Him and Jesus combined. That’s over. Dickey decried his lack of judgment in the past and advised his interviewer: ‘You ought to quit, too. Don’t let it do to you what it did to me.’ ”

I was a hypocrite.

I recall an icy December night in 1989. Robert Clark and I went to Dickey’s home with twenty-seven copies of South Carolina, The Natural Heritage for Dickey to sign, Christmas gifts. Intending to drink with the man, Robert and I brought bourbon as a gift: Jack Daniels Single Barrel Whiskey I believe. I remember the bottle was pretty.

We arrived on time. 7:30 p.m. Dickey met us at the door in his pajamas. He had no need to drink further. He took the bottle and placed it high on a shelf. Then after signing the books with his ornate signature, he asked us to join him in his study. There, to my disappointment, he asked if we were from the South.

“You know I’m from Georgia, like you,” I said, “and Robert is from Charlotte.”

“Good,” he said, grabbing his guitar. “Then you know the old Southern gospels. Let’s sing.”

And with that pronouncement, he launched into “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.”

I was standing by my window, On a cold and cloudy day, When I saw the hearse come rollin’ For to take my mother away.

Robert and I stood there mute. Dickey stopped strumming.

“You boys said you were from the South, c’mon, let’s go,” and with that he took up the song, singing with all his might.

Will the circle be unbroken? By and by Lord, by and by

Robert and I involuntarily took a step backwards and looked at each other for help. Dickey stopped again, stood, and stared with anger.

“I can’t sing a lick,” I said in apology.

“Me neither,” said Robert.

Dickey moved toward the hall. “Boys, I’m a busy man. I’m expecting a call from my agent any minute.” He showed us the door.

In the space of 15 seconds Robert and I were out in the cold, a precarious stack of books in our arms, wondering, exactly, what had hit us. Wondering what happened to our night of drinking with the Deliverance poet. We pretty much knew what happened to the Jack Daniels.

That cold December night was soon forgotten. We stayed in touch, and I proposed the feature to Reckon and Dickey agreed to an interview. Toward the end of our 1995 interview, Dickey discussed his failing health. “I met the Dark Man. I’m very much aware of mortality. I’d like to think I have some more years, maybe 10, 12, or 15 at the most, but that’s in the lap of the Gods.”

The Gods were tightfisted. He had but nineteen months.

Dickey died January 19, 1997. He left a novel unfinished and he left critics aplenty, especially in Columbia, South Carolina. Some colleagues felt he was a horse’s ass. One professor told me he couldn’t stand the man but in the same breath said, “Deliverance was a helluva novel.” I tried to defend the man, but heard instead, “To those who much is given, much is expected.”

Dickey left eloquent defenders behind. Jeffrey Meyers wrote in The New Criterion: “James Dickey, handsome, blond and blue-eyed, formidably energetic, large, and larger than life, scaled the heights. College athlete, air force navigator, advertising executive, guitarist, archer, hunter, teacher, performer and poet laureate, winner of a Guggenheim fellowship and a National Book Award, he covered the Apollo launching for Life and read his poetry at President Carter’s inauguration.”

Dickey was an icon to me. I didn’t care what his critics thought but I sure cared what he thought, and I had hurt the man. He had encouraged me to write, (“You underestimate yourself”) and thanks to my freelancing, I could relate to him. His stand on writing ad copy versus poetry is memorable. “I’d sell my soul to the devil by day and earn it back at night.”

To this day, when asked how the freelancing life goes, I respond, “Every night is a Saturday and every morning is a Monday.” Were he here, Dickey would nod and say “Amen.”

Dickey was laid to rest at All Saints Waccamaw Episcopal Church cemetery on Pawley’s Island, South Carolina, on a chilly sun-paled January day, everything blue, everything dead.

One afternoon in 1997, a summer thunderstorm raging, a student and I drove to his home so she could say she had seen Dickey’s house. There was no home. Its location had been sold. Nothing remained but rubble and bulldozer tracks. We trekked through the rain and returned with three bricks. She kept one. The other two sit in my office. Alongside them is a smooth stone I picked up from shallow Chattooga waters, monuments you could say. That was twelve years ago.

A new home sits at 4620 Lelia’s Court today, overlooking Lake Katherine. No marker, nothing, tells the passersby that the poet and author of Deliverance created literature and art here. What a shame.

When it comes to James Dickey, there are regrets aplenty to go around—on all sides. Among them, a share belongs to me. I earned it when I yielded to the temptation to disparage a man just because it seemed stylish. The thing to do, as so many others had.

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