September 8, 1998
Volume 51, No. 3
Dickey to speak of his personal deliverance at Emory
As father-son relationships go, Christopher Dickey's was the stuff of literature.
"My father was a great poet, a famous novelist, a powerful intellect, and a son of a bitch I hated," Dickey wrote of growing up in the giant shadow that was James Dickey, "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."
Those things included marriage and fatherhood at the age of 18, a position with the Washington Post by age 22 and many years in Central America, the Middle East and Europe as a correspondent for both the Post and Newsweek. Now Christopher Dickey has come full circle with the publication of Summer of Deliverance, a memoir of his relationship with a father who tried, and mostly succeeded, to be larger than life. Dickey will read from Summer of Deliverance Sept. 15 at 6 p.m. in Woodruff Library. A reception and booksigning will follow.
James Dickey is best known for writing Deliverance, but his most treasured work was his poetry, of which he published more than 20 volumes, winning him the National Book Award and a seat in the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He also spent the better part of 20 years continuously drunk and building a notorious reputation as a braggart, womanizer, outdoorsman and old-fashioned Southern hellraiser.
But a few years ago that all changed. Dickey suffered a near-fatal bout with alcoholic hepatitis in 1994, and by 1996 the man who had once stormed his way through the literary world was reduced to one who took an hour to wheeze his way up three flights of stairs, stopping on each landing to suck precious oxygen through a plastic tube. It was then that he found his son again.
Christopher Dickey returned to the family home in Columbia, S.C., to find a changed man. "The essence of my father's life was in his mind, and his intellectual powers in the last couple years of his life were every bit as strong as they ever had been," Dickey said. "It was a kind of Rip van Winkle effect, where he woke up and he was there with his full powers after years and years of being drunk."
And they began repairing the relationship that years of distance, both physical and emotional, had damaged so much. Chris Dickey discovered things about his father, things both wondrous and stupefying. Jim Dickey told some whopper lies in his time but none bigger than the ones he sometimes told his own family. When he was 8 or 9 years old, Chris' father told him of a first wife in Australia whom Dickey had loved before his mother.
"It was sort of interesting to him, the idea that he had had an Australian wife who died of blood poisoning; oh, a very dramatic story to tell your son, an 8-year-old," Dickey said. "And when I asked him about it a couple years ago, he just said, 'No, that's not true. I made it up.'
"I like journalism because I find the truth of the things I report on to be very exciting. That is the great divide between myself and my father-he found his inventions much more interesting than anything that could be true."
Not that Chris Dickey never stumbles upon an interesting invention. Now the Paris bureau chief for Newsweek, he frequently reports on world terrorism and has interview scores of terrorists from Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to Hamas rebels in Gaza. His novel Innocent Blood details the transformation of a blue-eyed American boy into a killer.
"The people in Hamas or Hezbollah very often, very consciously, look for bright kids from broken homes or homes where the father has been discredited or is gone, and they replace the paternal role and give the children a sense of where they should go," Dickey said. "The kids who become most dangerous are those who get caught up in something that gives them an intense sense of identity to replace the identity that's lost, a sense of belonging."
The relationships of sons, along with those of fathers and brothers, could be the next subject Dickey tackles. It is not hard to fathom why Chris Dickey, son of Jim Dickey, who died on Jan. 19, 1997, would be fascinated by the family relationships of men.
"I'm sure he regretted that we were apart so long," Dickey said of his father. "We both did, a lot. I think he regretted that he drank as much as he did, that he lost as much control as he did over his life. And I think we all regretted-maybe we regretted it more than he did-that there was not more time after he quit drinking that we could spend with him. But there wasn't."