What becomes a genius most? Not much, on the evidence of Christopher Dickey's trenchant, beautifully written memoir of his father, poet and novelist James Dickey. Dickey, who died last year in South Carolina at the age of 73, was the bestselling author of "Deliverance" and winner of the National Book Award for poetry in 1966, a hard-drinking, hard-living, womanizing wild man with only the most tenuous grasp on reality and "a burning desire for consequence," according to his son.
"My father was a great poet, a famous novelist, a powerful intellect, and a son of a bitch I hated," Christopher Dickey writes, "and that last fact was just a part of me. It was a cold knot of anger that I lived with, and that helped drive me to do the things I wanted and needed to do in my own life. I became a foreign correspondent" -- Dickey fils is currently Paris bureau chief for Newsweek -- "as far from him as I could be." It's a rare child writing about a celebrity parent who realizes that every drunken obsession, every heartless betrayal, every lie and ghastly act was somehow necessary, even imperative, to the lives of both generations.
James Dickey grew up in Atlanta under the eye of a German grandmother who terrified him with tales of Struwwelpeter ("The scissors man always comes/To little boys who suck their thumbs") and whose response to any event, large or small, was a brisk, "Es muss sein. Es muss sein" ("It must be. It must be"). "Summer of Deliverance" is not his son's attempt to "understand" James Dickey, but the account of that attempt -- more specifically, of the successful effort father and son finally made in the two years before Dickey's death to come to terms with one another after a lifetime of disappointment and a 20-year estrangement.
"There was no way to get at him without filtering his experiences through my own," says Christopher early on, "my memories of his parents, my adolescence, my wars, my middle age ... The more I sifted through his life and mine, the more I tried to bring my father to myself, the more I realized that what I was looking for lay somewhere between truth and imagination." Imagination was the grease that drove the wheel through all the Dickeys' lives -- the "man-god-father," the long-suffering mother, the bewildered kids and worshipful students and drug-addicted lovers who trailed in the dust of Dickey's star: "In life, my father believed he'd thrown in his lot with poets, so nothing else had to matter ... But the poem was the poem, I thought, and what we lived was what we lived. We ought to be able to keep that straight."
Vain hope. "No true artist will tolerate for one minute the world as it is," James Dickey told his son, quoting another literary wild man, Friedrich Nietzsche. It is the measure of Christopher Dickey's own imagination that he neither excuses nor condemns the Great Man, content with a remorselessly detailed, cold-eyed reminiscence that mysteriously emerges -- you can't imagine how -- as a deeply loving portrait and a kind of benediction -- "only the truth as it is," says Dickey. "As it must be."