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In 1998, the editors of the Modern Library selected Deliverance as #42 on their list of the 100 best 20th-Century novels. In 2005, the novel was included on Time magazine's list of the 100 best English-language novels written since 1923.
Narrated in the first person by Ed Gentry, a graphic artist and one of the four main characters, the novel opens with him and three friends, all middle-aged men who live in a large city in Georgia, planning a weekend canoe trip down the fictional Cahulawassee River in the northwest Georgia wilderness. It's a last chance to travel on this wild river, which is scheduled to be dammed to create a reservoir and generate hydropower. Besides Ed, the protagonists are insurance salesman Bobby Trippe, soft drink executive Drew Ballinger, and landlord Lewis Medlock, a physically fit outdoorsman who has promoted the canoe trip.
The men drive into the mountains with two canoes. At a gas station in a mountain hamlet, Drew sees a local albino boy playing a banjo. He gets out his own guitar and plays a duet with Lonnie, who appears to be intellectually disabled, maybe inbred, but with great musical skills. The men arrange with local mechanics, the Griner brothers, to drive the foursome's cars to the fictitious town of Aintry, where the canoe voyage is scheduled to end two days later. The visitors put their canoes in the river and begin their journey. After they shoot some initial rapids and evening approaches, Ed reflects on the isolation into which the group has now voyaged.
The following morning, Ed awakes early and goes hunting with his bow and arrow. Sighting a deer, he shoots but misses because he loses his nerve at the last moment. Lewis is unimpressed, and Ed gets annoyed at his survivalist mentality. After breaking camp, Ed and Bobby set out in one canoe slightly ahead of Lewis and Drew. Since the night in camp, Bobby has changed his mind about the trip. He is frustrated by Lewis' leadership, so Ed takes him as a canoe partner to keep the two apart.
Sometime that afternoon, Bobby and Ed pull the canoe over to take a break and let Lewis and Drew catch up after a small separation. As they are waiting, two men, one of them carrying a shotgun, step out of the woods. After a tense conversation these men attack Ed and Bobby. The men force them a bit further into the woods, Ed is tied to a tree by his neck and cut with his own knife; then the two men order Bobby to strip from the waist down. The two men force Bobby to bend over a log, and the older man rapes him. The men then untie Ed, and the younger makes Ed kneel, about to force Ed to perform fellatio on him. Lewis, hidden in the woods, fatally shoots Bobby's assailant with an arrow as the shotgun is handed off from the younger man to the older. Ed snatches the gun from the shot man after he falls, while the other flees into the woods.
The city men argue about what to do. Lewis wants to bury the body, arguing that if they inform the police, they might be convicted by a jury consisting of the dead man's relatives. Drew wants to turn the body over to police in Aintry. Bobby is ashamed and furious about his assault, and agrees with Lewis on trying to hide the body. Ed also sides with Lewis. The men bury the body and return to their canoes, with Ed and Drew teamed up again. That evening they enter a high gorge with powerful rapids. Drew falls out of one canoe and is pulled downriver, both canoes are capsized, and Lewis breaks his leg on the rocks. His wooden canoe breaks up in the rapids.
Lewis says that Drew was shot by the escaped mountain man. Ed is less certain, but realizes that if the mountain man is at the top of the gorge, he can shoot each of them. He decides to climb up the gorge to kill the mountain man with his bow and arrow.
Ed briefs Bobby about taking Lewis downriver in the remaining canoe at first light in order to avoid being shot. Ed climbs to the top of the gorge, and hides to await the rifleman. Early the following morning, a man appears and Ed shoots him when he appears to see the traveler. The rifleman fires, missing Ed, but knocking him from the tree. Ed is gored by one of his own arrows on landing. He tracks the rifleman and finds him dead nearby. He returns the body to the top of the cliff. As he does, he sees the canoe with Lewis and Bobby moving out into the river in the full light. Ed tries to identify the body, to see if the man was connected to the previous attack on Bobby.
Ed tries to lower the body to the riverbank, but it lands on rocks, destroying the face. Bobby cannot identify him. The men never know if Ed has killed an attacker or an unrelated hunter at the top of the gorge. The pair weight and sink the corpse, along with other evidence. Ed, Bobby, and the severely injured Lewis then continue the journey in the remaining canoe.
Below the gorge, they find Drew's body. Lewis confirms that he was shot by a rifle bullet. Ed and Bobby sink Drew's body in the river to hide the evidence of any crime.
Some time later, the men reach Aintry, where they explain that they suffered a canoeing accident at a falls upriver and that their friend Drew must have drowned. Ed and Bobby believe they have their story straight—Lewis feigns having few memories of the "accident" and thereby escapes questioning—but they soon learn that fragments of their demolished wooden canoe were recovered in Aintry a full day ahead of when they claim their accident occurred.
They modify their story to reconcile this. They claim to have piled all four men into the remaining aluminum canoe, which suffered an accident wherein Drew was lost and assumed drowned. The deputy sheriff grows highly suspicious of them and tells the sheriff that his brother-in-law has been missing since the weekend. He thinks the strangers have something to do with it. After the sheriff and his men drag the river searching for Drew's body, the sheriff lets the threesome depart, warning them not to return to Aintry.
Ed returns to city life, feeling changed by the violent events and memories of the river. Dammed, it exists only in his mind. He occasionally sees Bobby but the latter moves to Hawaii. Ed and his wife later buy a cabin on another "dammed lake," and Lewis buys a neighboring cottage. Lewis is marked by a limp but the two city men return outwardly to their lives.
- Garner, Dwight (August 24, 2010). "'Deliverance': A Dark Heart Still Beating" – via NYTimes.com.
- "100 Best Novels". Modern Library. 1998.
- Grossman, Lev; Richard Lacayo (16 October 2005). "All-Time 100 Novels: The Complete List". Time. Archived from the original on October 19, 2005.
- "DELIVERANCE | Kirkus Reviews" – via www.kirkusreviews.com.