Southern Cultures 11.4 (2005) 108-110
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The Chattooga River rises high in the mountains of southwestern North Carolina and churns its way south through some of the most rugged country in the southern Appalachians. Before it empties into Lake Tugaloo along the Georgia-South Carolina border, the Chattooga provides rafters and kayakers with some of the best and most challenging whitewater in eastern America. However, since 1972, the river has also occupied a prominent place in the collective psyche of those who venture into the southern backcountry. That year, the Chattooga (with the fictional name Cahulawassee) became the setting for director John Boorman's film adaptation of James Dickey's classic novel Deliverance. The movie's disturbing portrayal of mountain people and all-too-realistic depiction of male rape forced a generation of citified outdoor enthusiasts to think again about the perils of the southern wilderness. As I and a host of others who came of age in the early 1970s can attest, after seeing Deliverance, a night spent camping in the southern woods was never the same.
In this compelling book, John Lane, a self-described "old school" kayaker and associate professor of English at Wofford College, takes us down the Chattooga and into the netherworld of our imagination where the characters of Deliverance live on. Beginning on the river's headwaters, Lane guides us along backwoods trails and through now-famous stretches of whitewater, pausing occasionally to reflect on the essential elements of the movie and myth: Lewis Medlock's (Burt [End Page 108] Reynolds's) affinity for "savage" country and craving for "a kind of life that wasn't out of touch with everything"; the violent sexual assault on Bobby Trippe (Ned Beatty), which will forever be linked with the haunting line, "I bet you can squeal like a pig"; Drew Ballinger's (Ronny Cox's) enigmatic death—perhaps at the hands of the deviant locals; and Ed Gentry's (Jon Voight's) mental anguish over what to do with the body of a dead rapist. As Lane so eloquently explains, the dream of the bored Atlanta suburbanites is that along the Chattooga, "they will somehow be delivered from the day-to-day. Their nightmare is that they are."
Though forever shrouded in the myth of Deliverance, the Chattooga watershed is also a real place, one that the author knows well. As he shows us the modern river, Lane ponders the threats posed by increasing development, most visible in the proliferation of ostentatious summer homes, fast-food restaurants, and four-lane highways that serve the hordes of tourists that descend on the region every summer. As an environmentalist, Lane is understandably concerned about the future of the watershed. But he is also able to comprehend and appreciate the complexities of the human relationship with nature. Nowhere is this more evident than in his recounting of a whitewater rafting trip with his Wofford students. He wants them to experience the Chattooga as a wild place, to reflect on the power of raw nature, but is keenly aware that the very presence of a commercial rafting company somehow cheapens the experience and might well turn it into little more than "a Six Flags ride."
What readers will appreciate most about Lane's book is his uncanny ability to blend myth, reality, personal observation, and literary analysis into an absorbing story. As he seeks out local people involved in the filming of the movie, Lane finds that many still resent Hollywood's stereotypical take on Appalachian life and the stigma associated with Deliverance. In Clayton, Georgia, where the actors took up residence in 1971, the locals did not care for Burt Reynolds, whom they regarded as arrogant and aloof, even after he bought a summer home in the area, and much preferred the company of Jon Voight, who seemed much more approachable and down to earth. Billy Redden, the iconic "banjo boy" who will ever be remembered for playing...