I’ve always been fascinated by Dickey’s classic cautionary tale about four middle class suburban men who decide to answer the call of the wild and go for an adventurous canoeing trip into uncharted territory. As a city boy who was brought up soft, I’ve always entertained fantasies of being a macho survivalist, living off the land and killing my own food. So to see the psychological underpinnings of my own longing for the wild life examined in Dickey’s sharply insightful yet poetic prose was a harsh lesson in reality.
Dickey’s novel is a carefully crafted assassination attempt at the reader’s inner tough-guy. At first, he lulls us into the dreamlike fantasy of escaping from the boring lives we lead to go on a wild adventure. We want to be there with the four intrepid explorers, learning how to live in the woods and bend nature to our will, singing campfire songs at night and navigating the river’s rapids under the open sun in the day. Sure, it would be slightly uncomfortable, we think; but that’s nothing compared to the payoff of rediscovering our place in the world, knowing what is was like for our ancestors to eke out a survival in the wilderness, what it feels like to be a part of nature and to understand it’s signs. And that’s when Dickey gives us the uppercut.
The truth, as we all secretly know but don’t want to admit, is that modern society for all its boring routine and soul-deadening schedules is far better than the wild life. The reality is that in the wild, there is no medical aid or ordered society; no protection from infection or disease, and no protection from the tyranny of evil men. It is through the second of these tough realities that Dickey stabs at us the most – the heroes become victims at the hands of the very people they sought to imitate. Without warning, our heroes find themselves far out of their depth, and they are forced to either truly become base and wild like the men who stalk them, or else be shown to be unfit for the reality of survival.
I like to think of Dickey’s tale as a re-telling of Golding’s “Lord of the Flies”, with adults instead of children. While in that book, the children are faced with savagery in the form of losing respect for human life, Dickey’s book touches the more adult fear of losing respect for oneself.
Dickey’s writing style is perfect for delivering the punch in the most effective way possible. Its dream-like almost stream-of-consciousness flow and elegant phrasing are perfectly offset by his sharp black wit and the cold realism of the subject matter. The writing at once captures the beauty of nature and it’s indifference to human life. Most disturbingly, Dickey’s insight into the human condition reveals the extent to which nature’s indifference infects those who are exposed to it, making them just as uncaring for human life.
We all want to escape from our dreary lives from time to time, but Dickey forces us to think hard about where we should look and what price we should pay for deliverance.