In the short story “Who’s-Dead McCarthy“, Irish short story writer Kevin Barry takes someone’s darkly morbid fascination with death and exaggerates it in a story-length character sketch — a man who talks about death so incessantly that people cross the road to avoid him. It’s wonderful.
I think humour only ever exists in something that sets out to be serious. Anything that sets out to be humorous is doomed.
Do you know anyone who takes a keen interest in death? My mother is a longterm resident of the area where I grew up. She’s worked in various fields and knows a hell of a lot of people. She’s also very good at remembering names and faces. So every morning, first thing she does when reading the paper is open to the funerals page at the back. Every now and then — more and more often more lately — she will say, “Oh no, Such-and-such has died.” Sometimes this is whispered in a mournful tone — sometimes stated matter-of-fact.
As a teenager living at home, I found this aspect of my mother’s morning routine comically morbid. I couldn’t imagine ever taking such an interest in the death pages myself.
My second cousin, who is a Northern Irish New Zealander, swore he saw the Grim Reaper jumping over the back fence the evening before his father died. With this as the sum total of evidence, I have a feeling that the story of the Grim Reaper is quite popular in Ireland.
[McCarthy’s] role as our messenger of death along the length of O’Connell Street and back seemed to be of a tradition. Such a figure has perhaps always walked the long plain mile of the street and spoken the necessary words, a grim but vital player in the life of a small city.
Ireland is a Western culture of course, and compared to various non-Western cultures the West is reticent about death, preferring to deal with it mainly via metaphor, folklore and symbolism.
This story is a case in point, and opens with a description of Limerick in winter. Winter is the perfect symbolic season for a story entirely about death. There’s no summery ironic juxtaposition here.
Con McCarthy himself is depicted as a part of the landscape, setting him up as a supernatural figure, at one with nature (nature including death):
The main drag was the daily parade for his morbidity. Limerick, in the bone evil of its winter, and here came Con McCarthy, haunted-looking, in his enormous, suffering overcoat. The way he sidled in, with the long, pale face, and the hot, emotional eyes.
The city of Limerick contains the River Shannon, which plays on an age-old fear of rivers as places of death. They literally were, before modern plumbing. When I traced my own family history I discovered an ancestor had been killed while crossing a river on horseback. You’d probably find the same. The death records in England show that in the early modern period, drownings were quite common with toddlers — they could drown in ditches, in brooks, or in tubs of wort, the liquid extracted from the mashing process during the brewing of beer or whisky. Girls were more likely to die falling into buckets and wells than rivers because they stayed closer to home. Anyway, it’s no surprise that we historically fear water.
The symbolic river running through Limerick in “Who’s-Dead McCarthy” is a proxy for The River Styx in Greek mythology — the body of water which supposedly takes us from the world of the living to whatever lies beyond.
NARRATIVE VOICE OF “WHO’S DEAD MCCARTHY”
I was once in a writing group with an Irish fellow and felt a little envious of his distinctive, comedic voice. He had a way of writing which felt like he only had to transcribe his natural speaking voice onto the page and whatever he said would come out funny.
Of course, that was a vast under-appreciation of what it takes to write funny stories in a strong, distinctive voice. I was forgetting that I, too, come from a country where my regional accent is naturally comedic to outsiders. Flight of the Conchords is testament to this phenomenon, in which Brett and Jemaine ham up the Kiwi for laughs.
This is why I’m somewhat sympathetic to the commenter who had this to say about Kevin Barry’s story at the Irish Times:
How much of this is selling stock country types to city audiences? Also the romantic fallacy that there is wisdom in the primitive and misses the point that our man Con is really a groupie since what he is obsessed with is the star move everyone in the country can make — dying is the one thing that will get you in the paper and on radio, make you star of the show in the big house with the cross on it, in the same-sized box, with the same priest saying the same mass, going to the same limo in the sky where you’ll be the same as everyone else. It’s the small — or dull-man’s — revenge.
The great danger in writing with non-dominant dialects for laughs is that some readers will feel you’re lampooning the underdogs. And that is never a nice feeling. Those who speak with naturally ‘funny’ accents are at an advantage when aiming for comedy, but the flip side is, we also have trouble being taken seriously. Though I am not Irish, I understand this quandary first hand due to living outside New Zealand while speaking (for a while, at least) with a hilarious Kiwi accent.
STORY STRUCTURE OF WHO’S-DEAD MCCARTHY
“Who’s-Dead McCarthy” begins as a comical character sketch of one character (Con McCarthy), as told through the eyes of the ‘straight man’ narrator. We know nothing of this narrator except that he is ‘normal’ whereas Con McCarthy is not normal — unduly obsessed with death.
But then the story shifts — gradually rather than suddenly — and the story is now about the narrator’s response to death. The story morphs into an introspective, reflective meditation about the narrator, and about all of us, and how Con McCarthy has been instrumental in the narrator’s own perspectival shift.
So who is the ‘main’ character of such a story? They both are, equally, but for purposes of analysis, the ‘main character’ is the one who changes the most over the course of the narrative. So in this case it is the narrator. (Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that ‘change in circumstance’ equals ‘change in perspective’. If we were going for ‘change in circumstance’ then Con would win out, since he goes from living to dead.)
The audience is fully encouraged to enjoy Con McCarthy as a figure of fun, alongside the narrator. This is our shared moral shortcoming. We prefer to laugh at people who embrace death rather than accept it head on. The narrator’s moral shortcoming is that he treats Con with contempt, not thinking for a minute that he might learn something from the old man. (Until he does.)
The narrator deals with Con by turning him into a figure of fun, but his deeper psychological shortcoming is that he finds death terrifying. Better not to think about it.
‘Not thinking about it’ is in line with what the surrounding (Western) culture expects in regards to death. Talking about death when the deceased is not directly related to oneself equals ‘revelling in it’. There’s the line between appropriate and inappropriate smalltalk. Con crosses it, failing to heed any negative social cues.
Since the narrator does not want to think too much about death, and since Con won’t shut up about it, the two are in opposition to each other. Of course, Con McCarthy is the comical real-world equivalent of the supernatural figure of the Grim Reaper. It’s not Con who is the main opposition — the real opponent is death itself.
MYTHOLOGY OF THE GRIM REAPER
Death has long been personified in fairytale and folklore. The Grim Reaper plot was a popular one for the medieval writers of jests and fables:
Death promised a man that he would not take him without first sending messengers. The man’s youth soon passed and he became miserable. One day Death arrived, but the man refused to follow him, because the promised messengers had not yet appeared. Death responded: “Have you not been sick? Have you not experienced dizziness, ringing in your ears, toothache, and blurred vision? These were my messengers.” The man, at last recognizing the truth, quietly yielded and went away.
The Grim Reaper is most often a terrifying figure, but Kevin Barry has inverted the terror here and made him into a figure of fun.
The way Kevin Barry depicts this old man as a supernatural figure is masterful. It is achieved partly by painting him as timeless and unknowable:
He did not seem to hold down a job. (It was hard to imagine the workmates who could suffer him.) His occupation, plainly, was with the dead. It was difficult to age him. He was a man out of time somehow. The overcoat was vast and worn at all seasons and made him a figure from a Jack B Yeats painting or an old Russian novel. There was something antique in his bearing.
The rain that he drew down upon himself seemed to be an old, old rain.
THE COMEDY OF “WHO’S-DEAD MCCARTHY”
To that end, what are the exact comedy mechanisms at play?
A lot of situational comedy relies upon expected gags which play out in almost exactly the same way time and again. In Keeping Up Appearances it’s Hyacinth being surprised by the dog in the car, and throwing herself against the hedge. It’s funny because we know it is coming. Occasionally it’s subverted. Likewise, Catherine Tate’s sketches rely heavily on audience expectation, as do the sketches in Little Britain. It doesn’t take long to set these up. Twice is enough. In “Who’s-Dead McCarthy” the author sets up a fully expected script with several repetitions of the same conversation. This becomes inverted in the final sentence. This example of common comedic set-up reaches beyond comedy, however — the key is in the flip at the end. The narrator has become the figure of fun, and is now at the mercy of death himself. Moreover, the fact that the reader ‘expects’ what’s coming mirrors how we ‘expect’ death to come to each and every one of us, but we don’t know exactly what ‘the author’ (fate) is going to do with it in our own particular sketch. We know we’re going to die. We don’t know exactly when and how. This is its own kind of comfort and delight.
Con McCarthy is turned into a comedic character partly due to melodrama.
“Elsie Sheedy?” he’d try. “You must have known poor Elsie. With the skaw leg and the little sparrow’s chin? I suppose she hadn’t been out much this last while. She was a good age now but I mean Jesus, all the same, Elsie? Gone?”
His eyes might turn slowly upwards here, as though in trail of the ascending Elsie.
(Notice how the author repeats the melodrama in the final sentence, with the same image of the eyes slowly moving up: ‘I let my handsome eyes ascend’. Why ‘handsome’? That word pulled me up short the first time I read it. This is the narrator now viewing himself from another plane. His younger self would of course be ‘handsome’. He is also seeing himself as an actor on a stage.
The comedy in this short story shares something in common with the comedy in many picture books; ie. the story goes as far as you think it could possibly go, but the author has the skill of taking us that one extra step further. A picture book example is Stuck by Oliver Jeffers. Just when you think nothing more ridiculous could get stuck in a tree, something does. In “Who’s-Dead McCarthy”, the ‘one more miserable thing tacked onto the end of great misery’ transforms the story-within-the-story of the bull attack from a sad story into a hilariously sad story, because it is revealed the family were watching. The added touch ‘They’ll never be right’ is the flourish that actually made me laugh. The epitome of gallows humour.
But Con does not respond as expected, by getting upset with the narrator, feeling shunned, suffering hurt. It becomes clear to the reader (and to the narrator) that Con’s fixation with death has somehow elevated him above earthly conventions like ‘fitting in by small-talking about frippery’. He has moved to a higher plane, confronted by his own old age and imminent death, where the spectre of finality causes worldly concerns to shrink permanently into insignificance.
“Can I ask you something?”
“Why are you so drawn to it? To death? Why are you always the first with the bad news? Do you not realise, Con, that people cross the road when they see you coming? You put the hearts sideways in us. Oh Jesus Christ, here he comes, we think, here comes Who’s-Dead McCarthy. Who has he put in the ground for us today?”
“I can’t help it,” he said. “I find it very … impressive.”
“That there’s no gainsaying it. That no one has the answer to it. That we all have to face into the room with it at the end of the day and there’s not one of us can make the report after.”
The narrator now shifts his own way of looking at the world. In a sense he becomes Con, next on the chopping block.
I BECAME MORBIDLY FASCINATED by Con McCarthy.
Whereas Con is obsessed with death, the narrator becomes obsessed with Con’s obsession with death.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
Another short story in which the narrator becomes like another character originally despised is “Sucker” by Carson McCullers, written when she was seventeen. In both cases there is a verbal confrontation as Battle scene, followed by an unexpected reaction, followed by a body-swapping plot, though only in the psychological sense.
The Little Golden Books series was launched in 1942, just as the second world war ended. Children needed to hunker down with cosy stories (along with their parents). Scuff The Tugboat was one of the earlier publications of this highly successful franchise, first printed in 1946, and the epitome of ‘cosy’. Now you can buy an edition with a big 75th Birthday Celebrations on the front.
What makes this book a classic? Is there anything special about it, to be replicated by modern picture book writers?
But apart from the ‘pull along’ drag of it, in which there’s no going back, the river in this story could easily be a road and the main character could easily be walking down a path. Scuffy The Tugboat is your classic mythic structure: A character leaves home in search of something, meets various trials and tribulations along the way and either returns home or finds a new home, having learned something new about himself.
But this is the little kid version of a mythic journey — all suggestion, nothing followed through or explored in depth. A cosy myth, in other words. The illustrations by Tibor Gergely are also cosy in their palette and subject matter. (I like the concept of hygge to describe ‘cosy’ in picture books.)
This is a case of a character mistaking their malaise (desire) in their self-diagnosis. Scuffy thinks he wants to go out into the wide world, but he’ll learn that’s not what he wants at all. That’s what he wants on the surface, but deep down he wants a family.
I was meant for bigger things.
The journey will teach him what those bigger things are.
It eventually becomes clear to Scuffy that he is too small to survive in such a big world. Along the way he meets various cosy opponents:
The cow who almost drinks him by accident
The owl which hoots and gives him a bit of a scare
The men inadvertently blocking his way because they’re trying to pry free some floating logs. They won’t listen to the little tugboat.
Scuffy’s plan is to float down the river. He is self-important and speaks as if he owns the river. But eventually, when he realises the river is pulling him along and that he is stuck on this journey, he realises the plan belongs to the river, not to him.
The river moved faster and faster.
“I feel like a train instead of a tugboat,” said Scuffy, as he was hurried along.
The man with the polka dot tie has known all along that Scuffy would want to be saved right before the perilous journey into the sea, so in a scene that’s basically deus ex machina, the man with the polka dot tie plucks Scuffy out of the water and saves him.
Now that Scuffy has been on his big journey and learned how small he is compared to the world, he is happy to float in the bathtub at home.
WHERE DOES SCUFFY THE TUGBOAT FIT IN THE HISTORY OF CHILDREN’S LITERATURE?
Scuffy The Tugboat presents to young children a world which is big and scary. It ultimately says: The world is big and scary — way more scary than you know. You may have dreams, but the best place for you is at home, safe with your family.
I suspect this is how many people were feeling in the aftermath of the second war. Older adults had lived through two major crises. Most of the book buying public had suffered great loss.
I suggest that is why there’s nothing subversive or daring about this book. Scuffy the character does something bold, but child readers are not expected to emulate his attitude, which is presented to the reader as arrogance rather than confidence. By the end of the story Scuffy’s arrogance has been ‘fixed’. He knows his place.
Scuffy the Tugboat feels quite different from anything published today, in which children are respected to the point where they are told they can save the world — if not today, then one day. In contemporary children’s books, when children return to the safety of home, they are more likely to have earned independence, and the reader extrapolates that this journey out into the world was the first of many more.
Ironically, modern children have far smaller worlds than the baby boomers who were reading Scuffy the Tugboat. For many of today’s children, the most freedom they ever get ‘out in the world’ is the world they see through books and other media. Perhaps there’s no irony here at all. Perhaps we can expect, in any era, children’s books to afford exactly the freedoms denied to the young readers who enjoy them.
Do you like the idea of river fishing, without the annoying realities? One option is an afternoon plumped in front of Deliverance, starring the late Burt Reynolds. Another option is Annie Proulx’s short story “The Wer-Trout”, included in her Heart Songs collection of the late 1990s, though first published 1982. You won’t know what to expect from this one, as Proulx’s short stories can be darkly humorous or downright dark, and you might think you’re in for a Wallace and Gromit Wer-Rabbit experience. Be forewarned, this is one of the dark ones, with a little humour to make it even darker.
I’m also reminded of The Homesman,with the psychotic episode of a woman who’s stuck in the middle of nowhere with no social support (and past the point where she can seek it out herself). I’m reminded also a short story by Keri Hulme from her Te Kaihau collection, “King Bait“, which is more clearly magical realism. The magical realism in Proulx’s story could be interpreted as character invention, or part of a tall tale. The tall tale is a strong part of masculine, living-in-the-wild tradition — that’s probably where the genre was birthed.
This story is written in present tense. An interesting exercise is to look at why Proulx wrote some of these stories in past tense and a few in present. I believe it’s because “The Wer-Trout” has an element of build-up, as in a traditional supernatural tale, and the present tense is good for maintaining a suspenseful tone.
“The Wer-Trout” makes an excellent mentor text if you’re writing:
Two characters (or couples) living different but parallel lives
Creating suspenseful atmosphere
Writing a story with magical realism elements but which is nevertheless grounded in realism
Writing a character who is living in denial, pretending he doesn’t care, when his Anagnorisis is that he actually does.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE WER-TROUT”
[Rivers] has left the city to open The March Brown, a failing shop [WEAKNESS] stocked with “custom-tied flies, antique rods, imported English creels and old fishing prints, his books of Chinese poetry”. At the beginning of the story his wife leaves him [ROMANTIC OPPONENT], her exit precipitated when the woman who lives in the trailer up the road drives through their garden and mows down their little apple tree. Rivers tells himself he does not care about his wife’s departure [MISIDENTIFIED DESIRE], finding peace in his Chinese poetry and the ambiance of his empty shop: “He has found a way to cure himself of all suffering and worry by memorizing ancient Chinese poems and casting artificial flies in moving water. He is solaced by the faint parallels between his own perception of events and those of the string-bearded scholars of the Tang, enjoying, as he does, a sad peace at the sight of feathered ephemera balanced on the dark-flowing river.” Realizing that all his ambition is gone, he “doesn’t know if this is contentment or deadly inertia.”
Understanding Annie Proulx by Karen Lane Rood
THE TWO-SIDED NATURE OF REPOSE
This paradox around inertia/idleness/relaxing seems to be at the heart of the themes in this story. Others have noticed the same thing, in which the concept of repose forms a kind of contronym:
When the academic year comes to an end, I find myself sprawled on the couch, re-watching old episodes of British comedy panel shows on a loop. I cannot tell if I am depressed or taking an indulgent break.
As busy as we think we are today, people were complaining about business back in 1982. Traditionally, the rural life is considered the arena of relaxation (symbolised by all the hobby equipment Rivers sells in his shop), whereas city life is considered the arena of work and productivity. While this distinction has its problems (farming and rural shopkeeping requires many hours’ labour, though they may be lower in stress), the idle/busy distinction is nevertheless a distinction maintained in city minds. I believe Proulx is encouraging us to examine that part of our rural idyllic collective imagination. She makes sure to tell us that Sauvage works very long hours, lingering on descriptions of how his headlights look as he leaves in darkness and comes home in equal darkness.
On the same day Rivers’s neighbour, Sauvage, the husband of the woman who smashed the apple tree [PROXYOPPONENT], comes home to discover his wife eating a mouse. Because she has thrown their telephone in a sink full of hot water, Sauvage rushes to River to call an ambulance to take her to a mental hospital.
Visiting Rivers’s shop the next day, Sauvage proposes a fishing trip to the Yellow Bogs in the north-country swamps, a place he has heard about from his French Canadian grandfather, who spoke of the huge brook trout to be found there. The two men set out on their adventure, which reads like a parody of Ernest Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” (1925, in which Nick Adams gains a measure of psychological renewal after the trauma of the First World War.
On the trip Rivers plunges into a fantasy world of his own making. An alcoholic who has not had a drink in six years, he begins drinking heavily. While fishing apart from sauvage, he takes off all his clothes except his boots, wades into the water, and fishes with his shirt wrapped around his head as protection against black flies. After he dresses and returns to camp, Sauvage, who has seen him through the fog but not recognized him, says there is another, crazy fisherman in the bogs. Thinking to scare Sauvage [PLAN], Rivers tells him he saw the Wer-Trout (man-trout), a being with a man’s body and a trout’s head, who goes after fishermen who catch female trout. “That’s how come our wives are gone,” Rivers adds. “In the daytime when we weren’t there the Wer-Trout came around …. and scared them away”. Sauvage laughs off Rivers’s story [BIG STRUGGLE], but later, alone in his tent, Rivers pulls out his last bottle of whisky and sees his face distorted in the curve of the glass, “the chinless thorat, the pale snout, the vacant rusted eyes of the Wer-Trout”. Having become a grotesque embodiment of all the pain he has sought to avoid, he finally glimpses his own culpability [ANAGNORISIS] in the failure of his marriage.
Understanding Annie Proulx by Karen Lane Rood
I feel this is a commentary on masculine communication, or lack thereof. Annie Proulx really does seem to be a part of this culture, though gendered female in life. It’s quite amazing. In any case, it seems that, aided by alcohol, Rivers would like to open up about the situation with their wives, rather that this displacement activity of fishing. But Sauvage isn’t having any of it. He’s a rough, manly man who goes into nature to escape his domestic problems, not to indulge in them. He retreats into his own tent, angry with Rivers for bringing his wife up in the context of a joke.
THE WOMEN OF “THE WER-TROUT”
The women are unnamed archetypes. Sauvage’s wife is described like a modern (Greek) Gorgon — a woman with hair made of living, venomous snakes. Her eyes turn men into stone.
Rivers has noticed the wife driving the Jeep up from the mailbox at the base of the mountain, her animal-brown hair long and tangled, shooting away from her head like dark, charged wires, her beaked nose, bloodless lips, black eyes like wet stones.
But in this story, Rivers sees the woman as a crow. Later she will mow down his apple tree with her wagon. Crows are known to feed on apples if you don’t put bird nets on them.
The wives are linked — whereas Sauvage’s wife is compared to a crow, Rivers’ wife likes to embroider birds. By linking the wives, Proulx also links the husbands. She’s creating two couples living in parallel.
STORYWORLD OF “THE WER-TROUT”
As she always does, Proulx makes a strong connection between character and environment. Characters who can’t cope with the harsh environment are spat out:
In “The Wer-Trout”, Sauvage’s wife seems unhinged by living in a trailer in an isolated spot “at the base of the mountain,” and Sauvage returns home one day to find her eating a mouse; she is hospitalized. Thus the decay Proulx identifies encompasses not just the effect of climate on manmade structures, but also the corrosive effect it has on the psyche of individual characters.
The Geographical Imagination of Annie Proulx: Rethinking Regionalism edited by Alex Hunt
The weather is especially important to a story set in Northern Vermont:
The stories in Proulx’s Heart Songs suggest that newcomers to northern Vermont will be unable to cope with the weather and this factors in their decisions to live. […] In “The Wer-Trout”, Rivers’s wife leave him during the late wet spring to return to the city, sick of living “on a back road where tongue-tied, hostile natives squat in claptrap trailers.” It would seem these transplants, in addition to their personal problems, cannot manage the severity and monotony of the northern Vermont climate, and since they have the means to leave, they do.
The Geographical Imagination of Annie Proulx: Rethinking Regionalism edited by Alex Hunt
Annie Proulx likes to use unabashedly symbolic names. She uses them here for the two main characters.
Because of Dior’s marketing, I’m familiar with Sauvage from this:
Which frankly was crying out for this modification on billboards:
ESPECIALLY since the name is meant to be so evocative of manliness. In English it’s also a common wine term:
Sauvage is a French term meaning “wild” or “natural.” There are three things it might refer to. First, when appearing in a tasting note, it might mean gamy, earthy or forest floor flavours. Second, it might reference a wine that was fermented with wild or indigenous yeasts. Finally, I’ve also seen it refer to a sparkling wine, to indicate that no dosage (a sweet syrup added just before bottling) has been added, making it very dry, even drier than a brut sparkling wine.
Then there’s Rivers, who is has chosen for himself an equally symbolic name as his French-Canadian neighbour. His father’s name was Riverso, meaning “Misfortune, Reverse, Wrong Side”. I have a similar family name — it started out as Eustace (in French) but was shortened to Stace at some point, probably because it was being shortened naturally anyway, but also perhaps because it rhymes with English ‘useless’.
What’s the new thing Annie Proulx has done with the river and symbolism in this story? It’s authentic genius. I believe Proulx’s rivers can always be tied to the fatalistic nature of life — plonk certain archetypes in a certain environment and just see what always happens. But rivers also contain a paradox — they are slow in some places, fast in others. Moreover, we tend to sit by rivers, watching them move past us — this effect is seen no more clearly than when river fishing. The moving nature of the river underscores our fixed position beside it. This ties back to the dual nature of repose — sitting by the river fishing can be considered a fun pastime, but that kind of idle repose can equally be a torture, as it turns out in this story. Quietude is what drove the women away.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE WER-TROUT”
Two men are in superficial, dick-waving conflict with each other, but this stands as proxy for another kind of deeper conflict: concerning that of their respective wives, who aren’t there to catch it.
This is the story of two men, but for storytelling purposes they are one and the same man.
They are unable to communicate well, but despite their wish for a solitary rural life, they do need company. They will try to find it in each other.
Rivers is never a sympathetic character. He has his sights set on ‘something more’ with the woman next door (presumably at least 20 years younger). He makes a rude gesture when she doesn’t wave, though he waits until she looks away before making it. Yet we do feel some sympathy for him. It’s not a good feeling to constantly be ignored by a neighbour, especially when you’ve moved somewhere to enjoy a rural lifestyle, with thoughts of making friends with your neighbours.
Overall, Rivers and Sauvage want to live in rural Vermont and lead quiet, happy lives with the love of their lives. That’s the long-term desire underpinning everything, but that’s far too broad for the purposes of a short story.
In this particular short story, two men want to find company in each other to paper over the fact that their wives are gone. They think a fishing trip would be good for this purpose.
Because they’re both telling themselves that it’s the act of fishing that’s the real thing they want, they head off on a quest for a really big fish, part of folklore. But the quest for the massive trout is a conscious desire.
The opposition web involves men and their wives, then each other, as they try to clumsily find solace in each other’s company.
Of course, they are each their own worst enemies as well — Sauvage because he’s not able to communicate with another man, and Rivers because of that and also because he mistakenly thinks alcohol will help him in that regard. It’s significant that these men are neighbours — the geographical proximity tends to highlight to the reader their similar (parallel) lives. Like the four men in Deliverance, or each character in Winnie-the-Pooh, each of these characters represents a different aspect in men in general.
This part of narrative structure is often emphasised in a short story, and “The Wer-Trout” is a good example of a short story in which the Anagnorisis is the main point.
By placing the mouse in the pan, Rivers tips over into seeing himself as a horrible person. But we deduce this is the end of a long line of wrongs. Those wrongs are left off the page, but we’ve had enough snippets of conversation between Rivers and his wife to guess that he’s put his needs above hers. It’s masterful that Proulx leaves this off the page. I did get the sense, reading the wife’s dialogue that there’s nothing unusual in the reasons for his wife’s leaving — that’s why it’s not the main part of the story. A wife leaving a husband because she can’t cope with rural life is a story that feels done before. So instead the writer has focused on the Anagnorisis phase of the story.
There’s an extrapolated ending, in which we know what’s going to happen without it being on the page. (The words end at the Anagnorisis, which can make short stories seem a bit perplexing to the uninitiated.)
Rivers won’t let Sauvage away with his attempt at escaping difficult conversation, and mean-spiritedly places a dead mouse in Sauvage’s pan for him to find later. The reader knows that of course Sauvage will be reminded of his wife’s psychotic episode when he sees this. It will ruin the trip for him, and possibly ruin future trips. It will certainly cement the rift between neighbours who might otherwise find solace in each other.
To tie up the conscious desire of catching the delicious trout, Sauvage has success (because he’s not drunk) but this story is still a tragedy for him, because he doesn’t get what he needs — someone to provide emotional support in a difficult time. He probably thought Rivers was going to be a sage father figure, especially after Rivers did him the courtesy of leaving him to use the phone in peace, but drunk Rivers is quite a different character.
Deliverance is a 1972 movie based on the 1970 novel by James Dickey. Watch it in 2017 and it could have been made this year. The river setting, the timeless costuming, the themes and the film-making techniques have not dated. In fact, Deliverance continues to influence film to this day, including an homage in Carrie (the image of the floating hand), and the obvious influence on the 2017 film Jungle, starring Daniel Radcliffe. Deliverance is impressive when considering this was film shot before CGI. Actors put their lives at risk on this river, and didn’t come away unscathed. When playing dead, actors were either drunk or trained themselves to hold their breath and not blink for two minutes. Jon Voight really did scale that cliff, but with a harness that had to be kept out of the shot. When the boat breaks in two, that was thanks to a complex pulley system set up under the water. Unfortunately Burt Reynolds broke his tail bone and never fully recovered from that injury. Many years later, when Meryl Streep was filming The River Wild, she must have been thinking of this when she was almost killed during shooting.
The budget for Deliverance was very tight. Director John Boorman dropped the composer and went instead with the same banjo music utilised across the entire movie, functioning as a very simple soundtrack. Budget constraints led to a very pared down movie, but this simplicity is what also makes the film so good in the end.
Genre Blend Of Deliverance
In 2010 The Guardian named Deliverance as number five best action and war film of all time, which is a bit weird considering there’s no human war. (The war is man versus nature.) Deliverance is sometimes considered the first ‘eco-thriller’ which doesn’t really need further explanation — it’s a thriller with an ecological theme. Jaws and the Jurassic Park stories are other examples.
IMDb lists Deliverance as Adventure, Drama, Thriller, but there are also horror elements. The horror elements are what made Jon Voight reluctant to do the film. He read the script and had to have his arm twisted, because horror is not his thing.
The Cahulawassee River is a fictional river and the movie was filmed on the Chattooga River.
The “Cahulawassee River” is likely a disguised reference to the Coosawattee River, which underwent development after the Army Engineers approved the building of a dam in 1959. Today, the result is Coosawattee River Resort near Ellijay and Carter’s Lake; the former dramatic rapids are no more.
(The article tells us Coosawattee translates to ‘old Creek Indian place’.
The Chattooga River is one of the most difficult rivers to kayak — rated top level difficult. After the film came out a number of people decided to try rafting down the Chattooga and a number of them died. When asked if he felt any guilt over this, the director explains on the director’s commentary of the DVD that he actually went out of his way to make the river look dangerous and uninviting. The Chattooga is beautiful and mostly untouched at time of filming, but too beautiful for the film. In editing the film was heavily desaturated, which I had initially put down to it being an old film, but this was done deliberately at the time.
Although dangerous, on film the Chattooga doesn’t look especially dangerous. It looks calm on the surface. For the scene where the boat breaks in two, the filmmakers had to damn the river upstream, then let it go to create the right visuals. The first time they did this it trickled out and had little effect. The second time it came out much stronger than intended. The director still feels bad about that, especially since Burt Reynolds was doing his own stunts and injured his back. You can see the moment he injures his back which made it into the film, as most of this director’s film does. Burt struggled with injuries from many stunts his whole life, but in 2009 had to undergo back surgery and has been addicted to pain medication, so once you know that about the actor it’s hard to really enjoy that scene.
The symbolism of this river is a bit different from the symbolism of most rivers in stories (which tend to symbolise the flowing of time, with emphasis on irreversibility), because this river is about to be dammed. A dammed river means a stop – a premature stop – in time, a death. It makes symbolic sense that there were deaths on this river which is about to be dammed.
The irreversibility of time is also a feature of this symbolic river. “Now you tell me how a canoe can drift up river.” says the cop, emphasising there’s no going back (in time).
The Setting As Character
Back to the narrative, Boorman really liked how the leaves looked during the scene where the men argue about what to do with the body. He describes the colour as ‘acid green’, and did not remove the colour from those scenes. He used an anamorphic lens to open up space between the characters in the rape scene and following, to let the audience see more of the forest. Boorman says he regarded the setting as a character in its own right. Sometimes I’m not clear what writers and directors mean when they say this, because for characterisation purposes a ‘setting as character’ is never adequate in its own right. Instead, it’s a thematic statement. I believe Boorman means the setting in Deliverance is functioning as an unseen army opposition. In fact, the rapist and his toothless sidekick are not treated as characters.
Boorman says on the commentary that he regards these two as malevolent underspirits of the forest representing the people of Atlanta, who are about to desecrate the river to make a dam. To Boorman’s mind, ‘character’ does not correlate with ‘human’.
The opening scenes are brighter, shot in full daylight, but for the river scenes he aimed to shoot on overcast days as much as possible. Because this is the Appalachian Mountains, a lot of the days are foggy, in fact.
After the men emerge from the river, the editing style changes. The river has been nothing but hard cuts, but now Boorman makes use of dissolves, to give the emergence a dreamlike quality. These men have re-emerged into civilisation and can’t quite believe it. They’ve been through such an emotional journey the real world looks quite different. At the end we get to see the river beginning to be flooded, and communities are sinking under this water, now placid and tamed. Ed and Bobby row past the dam where the water is rising. There’s something sacrilegious about killing a river, and something raw and crude about the dam.
Though this isn’t in the novel, Boorman has his own symbolism attached to the river/lake (which he considers one and the same). Rivers are always symbolic in story and can signify many different things, but to Boorman the body of water represents the subconscious. At the end, when the bloated dead man’s hand emerges from the water it dissolves into the post-traumatic dream of Drew. (That’s the image that you’ll find as homage in the first film adaptation of Carrie, made four years after Deliverance.) TV Tropes call this The Raised Hand Of Survival. It’s related to the horror trope in which a dead monster never really dies, mechanically coming back from the grave to continue to wreak havoc.
This is an Appalachian story, kind of. The native Appalachian people filmed are descendants of people who were part Native American, part white, and therefore ostracised from both communities. They turned in on themselves and this has caused problematic lack of genetic diversity. When Lewis peers into a window and sees a girl with multiple severe disabilities sitting next to her grandmother who is sewing, this is not staged. This is a real pair of Appalachians doing what they do, and the camera peered in the window. The old woman and the girl do not get acting credits. (I hope they at least got paid, and gave permission.)
The boy who plays the banjo does not have a mental disability, but because he looks like he does, he is treated as disabled by the rest of his community. By the director’s description this actor is perfectly bright, but could not in fact play the banjo. They found another child actor who could play the banjo, and the hand that comes up behind the boy belongs to a kid sitting behind him, doing the frets. The first few times I saw this film I thought the boy was supposed to be blind, but no. When the boy looks down at the men from the bridge, his thoughts are ambiguous, but because he is shown to be a kind of savant, it’s like he knows something about the river that the men don’t.
If you’re from rural America, however, particularly from Appalachia, chances are you still hate Deliverance for the powerfully negative effect it has had (and still has) on outsiders’ perceptions of this embig struggled region, presenting it as all hookworm and incest, buckteeth and bluegrass. “Squeal like a piggy, boy!” is a phrase that can still get you beaten up south of the Mason-Dixon line.
The actor who played Bobby has had people all his life yell out ‘Squeal like a pig!’ and has said that acting the part of a rape victim has lead to its own measure of PTSD over the years — he felt as if he was raped, and that the feeling has never left him. Considering this actor consented to the job and was paid to do it and knew it was simulated violence, not real, it’s vital we are mindful of the impact of real world sexual violence.
Boorman has had people tell him they walked out during that rape scene and one man told him he never set foot in a cinema after that.
I do wonder if the men who failed to sit through the rape scene in Deliverance were equally repelled by the much larger number of fictionalised scenes in which women are raped as part of a male narrative arc. Would that man have walked out of Thelma and Louise, for instance? Did the terrible shower scene from Psycho disturb him or titillate him? That is another question worth asking, because Deliverance is one of the few films in which the rape of a man is used as another man’s character arc. Usually, by far and away most often, it is the rape of a woman that is used instead. I suspect a lot of men are unable to put themselves in the position of a rape victim unless that victim is also male.
The director said that the Georgia accent is so extreme that anyone who speaks in it is halfway there as an actor. (Non-actors were used as extras in this film.)
Time In Cinematic History
The rape scene was new for 1972 audiences and has not been oft repeated. The violence was also new. The killing of the rapist was necessary to depict because this is the scene that brought on the moral decision. But when the film reached the censor’s office they ran into trouble. The censor at the time didn’t mind scenes where a man was shot and dropped out of frame and that was it, but didn’t want an audience to deal with a lengthy death. It takes a while for the rapist to die from the arrow wound. (The actor had to train himself to not blink and hold his breath for two minutes, which is how he convincingly looked like a dying man.)
The contradiction between the censor and the filmmaker: The censor believes that by lingering on a death the audience will either be shocked out of the theatre or learn to revel in it. The filmmaker believes that unless it’s a lengthy and therefore realistic arrow death, the audience will fail to take the gravity of the situation seriously. In the end, both censor and filmmaker have the same exact fear: That audiences will not take the death seriously.
The expression ‘squeal like a pig’ came about because the studio demanded they shoot alternative language for television so they had to find alternatives. So they all tried to think on the spot – everyone hates doing TV alternatives. It took the place of a more powerful phrase. But it was so good the director decided to keep it in the film version.
Time In History
When Ed returns home to his wife and wakes up plagued by post-traumatic dreams, it is clear how similar this experience is to that of a war veteran. Fun fact: The author himself was a fantasist, both off and on the page. He used to tell people he was a veteran of the Korean war, but he wasn’t. However, he might have been drawn to war stories. He would certainly have known a lot of men who had been to war, and perhaps by writing this novel he purged himself of some war fantasies. If he never went to war it makes sense that he himself might feel some deep, masculine desire to test himself in the wild against a formidable force. A lot of the movie-going audience lived through wars. Deliverance is a war story in theme rather than setting.
By the way, Dickey also told every actor on set that everything that happened in the film happened to him personally. But when Boorman saw him get into a kayak for the first time and capsize immediately, he realised nothing in the book had happened to him personally.
Characters In Deliverance
Who is this story about? Men. This story is about basic masculine urges and how they are civilised and suppressed by modern life. Burt wanted to kill someone. Men have an underlying need to express these deeper urges, which is why there’s the madness of war, why war is so exciting to many men (and also sport).
Deliverance is an interesting case study when it comes to character function. The logline tells us the main character is probably Lewis:
Intent on seeing the Cahulawassee River before it’s turned into one huge lake, outdoor fanatic Lewis Medlock takes his friends on a river-rafting trip they’ll never forget into the dangerous American back-country.
But this is a story about an ensemble of men. These men are so different from each other you wonder how they’d be friends in real life. In fact they’re not — Lewis doesn’t know a couple of the guys before this trip. Whenever you wonder how fictional characters would even be friends, it’s probably that each character stands in for a different facet of personality in The Everyman. (Or Everywoman, or Everychild). Deliverance is specifically a film about masculinity, and the various ways of being a man in the early 1970s. Men have a wild side, a conservative side, an underdog side, a family man side.
Lewis — ‘Tarzan’. He wears a sawn off rubber jacket exposing his biceps. Costuming was all the more important since we didn’t see these characters in Atlanta.
Ed — a family man who has known Lewis from way back (we’re not told how). Ed is an advertising executive, as the author was himself. This is the character Dickey most heavily associates with. Ed is not a natural macho man, but must take over once Lewis breaks his leg. He contrasts with Burt in his grey sweater.
Bobby — is the chubby insurance salesman who ‘is highly regarded in his field’, according to the kind-hearted Ed, anyway. Bobby is an archetype — the aggressive yet cowardly side of a man. Bobby is your modern gamer guy who is terrible at games but picks on girl avatars. He is pretty scathing about the hillbillies and loudly announces his disdain for the rubbish in front of the hillbillies themselves, commenting on all the rubbish, and they must have reached the end of the world, where all the rubbish ends up. He wears a comical pork pie hat.
Drew — We don’t even know this guy is a family man until the improvised funeral. On a continuum of morality, this guy is the most law-abiding and honest. He is also sacrificed.
Matt Bird, in Secrets of Story, writes that even when a narrative is about a group of characters, the audience warms to one in particular. This isn’t necessarily ‘the good guy’. Who did you warm to?
Lewis is an interesting character, probably on the sociopathic spectrum, full of contradictions. He tells Bobby not to judge the hillbillies based on their looks, while all the while judging Bobby for being chubby, thinking him incapable of the river journey. He’s basically an asshole who seems to take delight in putting his male friends to the test, thinking he’ll come up trumps. His magnetism is no doubt partly down to Burt Reynolds’ star quality (this was the film that launched him). Boorman admits that Reynold’s overacted at times, but persuaded himself the cuts were okay because that’s who Lewis was. Lewis is not an empathetic character, but I do sense his need to get into the jungle and really test himself to his limits. He’s an adrenaline junkie. “Who does he think he is, Tarzan or something?” asks one of the other guys as Lewis goes off at night to investigate a noise. We are given enough information to make our minds up rapidly about Lewis. This guy is an archetype.
Ed is the character who has the character arc, transforming from someone interested in nature but cowed by it, to someone who faces a life and death struggle, and pulls through, transformed (though tragically).
Bobby is an archetype, and he too is sacrificed in a way (after the rape scene). Bobby is not an empathetic character even though Lewis calls him ‘Chubby’, mostly because when the underdog picks on even weaker characters we can’t possibly feel sorry for the underdog. An audience has no sympathy for that. Also, he sells insurance. Presumably, Bobby does just fine back home in Atlanta. Bobby is a boy’s name – his chubbiness is like early boyhood. He has no character arc in this story. He doesn’t grow — he shrinks.
Drew is Good, almost to the point of being a Mary-Sue character, engaging the boy in the banjo-guitar duet, treating him as an equal for that moment, always the voice of reason, emotionally literate. Yet he remains in the background. We see less of him than of Lewis and Ed. He exists mainly to be the voice of reason in the dialectic about turning themselves in.
Each of these characters represents part of the author himself. Those who knew him could see this clearly. Funnily enough, the guy behind The Muppets says the same thing of himself:
Yes, I identified most with Grover and Fozzie, but there are bits of me in all of my characters. Me being boring is Bert, me pure is Grover, me obsessed is Cookie, me neurotic is Piggy, me insecure is Fozie, me uptight is Sam, me crazed is Animal. I’m a bit like each of them. And so are you.
(Noted with interest which of these traits Oz associated with femininity.)
From a storytelling perspective it’s interesting that Boorman chopped the first third of the novel right out. In Dickey’s novel the first third is about these guys’ regular lives in Atlanta. Boorman found this tedious, ploughing through the characters interacting with their wives and children and at their jobs. He knew that the audience would understand these guys with very little information, so he plunged us right into the wilderness with them. By the time the gas station scene has ended we know who they are, and if we’re still in any doubt, watching Lewis speed down that unfamiliar dirt road while Ed sits terrified in shotgun cements any ambiguity. This was Boorman treating the audience with respect, and marked a more modern way of storytelling. There’s a lesson in there somewhere about backstory. The reader doesn’t need nearly as much as the writer thinks we do.
In sum, this is Ed’s story. Ed is most often the focalising/viewpoint character.
We watch the hillbillies from Ed’s point of view, standing by as Ed plays guitar and Bobby makes fun of the attendant.
When Ed is scared of Lewis driving, we’re scared for them.
Ed is looking on as Bobby is raped
Ed goes missing after the small waterfall. We close in on Ed’s face.
We see through Ed’s eyes when the cops turn up — they’re talking to Bobby already.
It’s up to the audience to work out for ourselves why these men are on the river. The gas station attendant challenges the men, “Why do you want to do that for?” The audience might be wondering that too. But with this being a macho story, we understand by the end of the film that these men — Ed included — have a deep-seated psychological need to remove themselves from the safety of Atlanta and transport themselves to the wild where their manliness can be truly tested. By leaving out the backstory Boorman trusted his audience to get this intuitively.
He wants to kayak down the river with his long-term friend Lewis and two newer buddies from Atlanta then make it home safely to his wife and son.
He wants to prove himself capable as a man in the wild. At least, he doesn’t want to be shown up by Tarzan Lewis. We see this below-the-conscious desire when he wanders into the woods to try and shoot the deer. Why does he want to shoot it? Not for the meat, surely.
Early in the film Ed says something along the lines of, “It doesn’t matter what’s happening in the world — no one will find us out here.” The men have been ‘delivered’ from the real world, transported into the wilderness. Later, most of them will be ‘delivered’ once again into civilisation. This speaks to Ed’s desire to get away from civilisation, but also foreshadows trouble to come.
A very typical character web: The big, bad, inhuman opponent (nature, the dangerous river, the characters who are part of the landscape) is pitted against a small group of individuals who in turn are united against this big bad monster baddie but also function as opponents to each other owing to their day-to-day butting of heads. At first Lewis looks like he could be a psychopathic river buddy but he is soon taught a lesson and the setting itself becomes Ed’s main opponent.
On that point, the downfall of Lewis is satisfying because he’s such a dick-waving macho man, full of talk about needing to respect the river then failing to respect it himself, that it feels like karma and revenge when he breaks his leg and suffers immense pain because of it, needing to be rescued by his beta-male friends. I do believe this is a bit of wish-fulfilment the writer is exploiting in us with Lewis.
Lewis challenges Ed about the strength of his desires near the beginning of their trip. “Why do you come along with me on these trips, Ed?” he asks. Ed admits he doesn’t rightly know. Ed is basically along for the ride, on a plan made by Lewis. When you’re writing a main character whose character attribute is ‘passive’ or ‘laid back’ it’s a good trick to give them a sidekick (who may initially look like the main character) with go-getter tendencies. This sidekick will start the story in motion. That’s Lewis, of course — the ‘protagonist’ in the original Greek meaning of the term.
Ed’s plan is to go along with Lewis for a fun time, see what happens.
Deliverance is a mythic journey, so the men encounter a series of big struggles, culminating in intensity. (Unless the big struggles culminate a journey can feel too episodic).
They big struggle against the current, at first in small current, then in very large.
Ed big struggles against the deer (and loses his nerve). As he works his way through the forest searching he is now alone, away from the others. The sense of four people together has gone. We are all ultimately alone in death and this foreshadows that moment for him.
They hear a noise which may or may not be human (see what the writer did there?) and fail to locate the source
They low-key argue with each other along the way, establishing a pecking order
The men’s big big struggle with each other is the dialectical scene about what to do after Lewis shoots an arrow through the rapist. Lewis comes out on top, and Drew loses big time. When he falls into the river soon after, it’s deliberately ambiguous — did he throw himself into the water in despair or was he really shot? In the previous scene, when Drew starts to dig the grave, the digging becomes neurotic and it’s almost like he’s digging his own grave. They’re descending into a kind of primitive world when they bury the rapist. There’s no priest or ritual. Nor is there any priest when Ed and Bobby are required to perform an impromptu funeral for Drew.
Ed’s big struggle culminates with the murder of the Toothless Man (or is he?) and there’s a great visual as he comes face to face with his victim under the water.
There’s another big struggle between Ed and Bobby about what they’re going to tell the police. The two men are wearing the same shirts. They’re forever psychologically bound together because of the transformative experience they just went through.
Through these big struggles, the closeness of the men is being sundered. Sometimes a series of big struggles brings a family closer together (e.g. Little Miss Sunshine), but in this story the characters are torn apart.
Dickey himself explains the anagnorisis had by Ed:
“I think only one thing; that men…settle for too little in their lives. And this chance encounter in the river was for…Ed Gentry, some kind of opening to a dark place he would never know was there…John Berryman [the poet] once said that a man can live his whole life in this country without knowing if he is a coward or not. I think it is necessary for him to know.”
James Dickey, on Deliverance
At what point do we see this self revelation happen on screen? We don’t see it happen immediately in some kind of rapid, epiphanic moment. This is why the denouement is important to this story.
When he shoots the man we know the macho part of his character arc is complete, because it started the moment we saw him unable to shoot that deer.
By the way, it’s accidentally unclear to much of the audience exactly what happens when Ed shoots the arrow at the toothless man. He shoots him in the back, and then immediately rolls over onto another of his arrows by accident. The director didn’t mean this to be at all ambiguous, but says that’s the best he could do in hindsight. It doesn’t help that we don’t see the enemy has been shot until he turns around.
When Drew throws himself into the river (or is shot), this demonstrates a very conservative view on truth and lying — by blunting the truth, this had a corrupting effect on the men. The underlying assumption is that lies can never really be buried — the truth either finds its way out, or haunts you forever. A non-conservative message would be the inverse — that lies are sometimes for the best, and let’s all move happily along with our lives.
Boorman had to fight for the scenes that came after the men rowing into Aintry, with the rusty old cars on the side of the bank. By the by, Boorman describes these cars as ‘ironic‘. The men have earlier disparaged these rusty old cars as as symbols of non-civilisation — now they’re using them as evidence of civilisation. Their attitudes have changed in just a couple of days.
Why did Boorman fight to keep these scenes? Not because the audience couldn’t guess about how their lives were going to look now — but because we needed to see their slow anagnorises play out. Ed starts crying in the Aintry restaurant, but the kindly people there deflect and a woman starts talking about a comically large pumpkin. This shows his faith in humanity will slowly be restored.
We need to know if Lewis lives or dies — when we send him off he may or may not lose a leg, turning him into how many war veterans looked in those days. Stories such as Lonesome Dove end with survival but loss of limb — a victory is a pyrrhic victory if you don’t come out intact.
For Ed the point is very much the self-knowledge he gleans after he is forcibly set free.
The brothers they paid to deliver their cars came through. Ed can’t really believe the cars are there waiting for him.
The matter of the dead man is tied up briefly. It was Deputy Queen’s brother in law they shot – “He’ll come in drunk, probably.”
When Bobby and Ed say goodbye Bobby says, “I don’t think I’ll see you for a while.” I suspect those two never see each other ever again. Sometimes when a friend becomes associated with a negative experience, compartmentalisation means the friend has to go, especially if it’s a new friend.
Ed will go to visit the widow and family and do what he can for them, because we believe he’s a man of his word, not because we need to see it play out on screen. We do see him go home to Atlanta, hug his own wife and play with his young son.
Ed is a city man but connected to nature, yearning to be among it. But does he have what it takes to really survive in nature? Yes, it turns out he does. He has physically survived, but by turning into Lewis he lost a part of himself.
We see the little white church several times. This is a church rescued from drowning, later towed away. There’s a sense of having come back to civilisation but there’s this church is hanging over them, accusing them of this crime they’ve committed.