JAMES Dickey was hugely gifted and hugely flawed, a tremendous reader and a born writer, an athlete and an intellectual, a deep thinker and a drinker, a composer of burly and extremist poetry, an excessive performer, a hopeless liar, an inveterate womanizer, a father who gave himself airs. This furnished much for a son, especially a talented son, to flee from. Christopher Dickey writes,
The whisky on my father's breath, a smell that seemed to come from deep in the bellows of his lungs, started to frighten me.... I'd smell the whisky and know that whatever I said to him would go past him and whatever he replied would be words spoken to the air. He was my father still, but he was somebody I didn't know.
Though Summer of Deliverance tells more than other books are likely to about the life and death of James Dickey, it should be even better appreciated for what it achieves in telling the truth about the ways a son gives meaning to the weight of a father -- Aeneas carrying Anchises out of burning Troy. American southerners somehow understand more about the truth of the past than northerners do; perhaps because, like William Faulkner, they know that "the past is never dead. It's not even past," and consequently know how to tell us more-resonant stories. Christopher Dickey's book is southern in that it inhabits the past and the present at once: "Was I the grown man talking to his aged father, or the little boy talking to his dad?" Various observers have for years been preparing to write about the life and work of James Dickey, but those who admired his talent -- or the best of his talent -- have doubtless been facing that eventuality with a sinking feeling. Much of the redemptive job of biography has now been done by the poet's elder son.
James Dickey seemed to come out of nowhere in the 1960s, arriving in a flood of poetry -- strange, exalted verse stories. The poems in Drowning With Others (1962), Helmets (1964), and Buckdancer's Choice (which deservedly won the National Book Award in 1966) may have strutted like someone wearing elevator shoes, but they soon justified themselves in the way they set forth one self after another, against the backdrops of war, of lust and growth, of a southern landscape dripping with anticipation. In Poems 1957-1967, Dickey's roaring poems took on various personae: an adulterer, a frenzied pilot, a panther, a sex fiend, a country preacher, and a guitar player. In such fierce lyrics as "Kudzu," "Cherrylog Road," "The Sheep Child," and "Adultery," and on larger canvases like "The Fiend," "Falling," "The Firebombing," and "May Day Sermon," Dickey seemed to be pushing at the frontiers of poetic narrative. In 1967 The Atlantic Monthly published an article in which I compared, with certain reservations, Dickey's poetic stature to that of Robert Lowell, the reigning influence for many of the younger poets of the time.