- Milkweed, 352 pp.
Brilliance Shines in Wisconsin
It’s been a very long time since David Rhodes has had a novel published. A long time coming. With the release of Driftless, he proves once again that he’s as good as anyone out there as this succinct graph early on demonstrates:
The stars looked back at him from ten million years ago, their light just now arriving. He wondered if there were other places in the universe where the rules of the living did not require feeding on each other – where wonder could be discovered without horror and learning the truth did not entail losing one’s faith.
Only thirty-four pages into the book and he’s nailing things down tight while leaving plenty of room to wander the Wisconsin countryside of Midwestern sensibilities and curiosities. In his first book in more than thirty years Rhodes proves with ease why when he stopped writing after a paralyzing motorcycle crash in 1977 he was considered one of this country’s finest writers. Following the publication of The Last Fair Deal Going Down – a brilliant, unsettling book that features an underground city beneath Des Moines, Iowa peopled with cannibalistic heroin addicts – how can this not work for some of us – his second book The Easter House, was compared by one New York Times critic to the publication of Sherwood Anderson’s classic Winesburg, Ohio. Rhodes third book was Rock Island Line, published in 1976 and reissued this year by Milkweed. In On Becoming a Novelist, published in 1983, John Gardner said that Rhodes was a young writer with a brilliant “eye for detail.”
In many ways this latest book is a continuation of a character in Rock Island Line, July Montgomery, and a refinement of earlier characterization and narrative. According to a quote on Mark Athitakis’ American Fiction Notes:
The seed behind Driftless came about after a good friend of Rhodes’ died suddenly. “I felt I knew him pretty well,” says Rhodes, but at his funeral, “there were about 300 people, and I knew about 10.” He realized that “you only know a tiny little part of your friend, and to know your friend totally, you’d have to know the people that meant something to him, and the way he meant something to them, too.”
The accident left Rhodes paralyzed from the waist down, understandably bitter and withdrawn, but meeting his future wife, Edna, turned his life back around. He lives on a 36-acre farm in the Driftless region of Wisconsin, a Paleozoic Plateau landscape in the Midwest noted for its deeply carved river valleys. While mainly in southwest Wisconsin, it includes areas of southeast Minnesota, northeast Iowa and northwest Illinois. This region includes elevations ranging from 603 to 1,450 feet and covers an area of 16,203 square miles. The region’s peculiar terrain is due to its having escaped glaciation during the last glacial period. The term “driftless” indicates a lack of glacial drift, the material left behind by retreating continental glaciers – something of a subtle and elaborate metaphor for the novel where people are relatively unmoved by the passage of time, the progression of modern society that seems to roll along all around them but never directly contacts their lives.
When Rhodes is not indulging interests that include or at one time included reading, hot cars like a Dodge Challenger, jazz guitar and philosophy, he’s writing with skillful rhythms and shiftings that make ordinary people seem strangely unique before their paths inexorably come back around, revealing that they’re just everyday individuals like the rest of us. All of this is done believably and smoothly. No easy deal, especially with so many of them with so many vagaries.
The setting for Driftless is Words, Wisconsin, a small town that is left to move through time in its own rural, isolated ways while most of the rest of the world frantically marches onward into modern oblivion.
I grew up not far from this region hunting grouse, walking, and fishing for mostly small trout in the clear, cold spring creeks. One of the reasons my studies at Beloit College suffered to the point of my being told to leave the august institution was this country. I always decided in favor of spending time in the driftless land to that of dying unending slow deaths in classrooms filled with cigarette smoke and stale ideas. Like the purity of the driftless, Rhodes’ novel is a fresh breeze sifting through the litter of cookie cutter topical fiction proliferating these days.
Characters include a middle-aged couple, Graham and Cora Shotwell, under siege for blowing the price-fixing whistle on a mammoth dairy cooperative. Most individuals from the state know about the Wisconsin Dairymen’s Association and the clout it wields, so this subplot was intriguing to me. There’s an 89-pound life-long invalid, Olivia Brasso, and her care-giving sister Violet, who steal some of the show as Olivia rediscovers mobility and life, and wise July Montgomery who mysteriously appeared and made Word his home twenty years ago. There is a new female pastor with serious moral dilemmas, dog fights and gambling, a determined country western singer/song writer, Rusty Smith’s frenetic home renovation project involving an Amish work ethic he was unaware of, wicked winter storms and pastoral scenes of the land itself.
As he grew older, his attitude changed. Things outside him became more important than his machinery’s chemical laboratory. Other people, his wife, gave value to his life. She was worthwhile, and if at the time he had been asked where his value came from, he would have pointed to her. The machinery inside him was useless in providing worthwhile feelings without her.
Then, several years after her death, he changed his mind again. He realized that beyond his sorrow, in front of his memories, the same value she had once provided for him was still available. It hadn’t gone away, even though she had…
Rhodes has extended a unique, funny, absorbing, at times frightening reality that he’s been building since The Last Fair Deal Going Down. In Driftless this world turns honestly optimistic and shows a man writing with openness, faith and compassion where once bitterness and anger may have held sway.
Reading this book made me feel like I was eight-years-old again or fifteen or twenty-one or fifty-seven.
What all this boils down to is that Driftless is a novel crafted by a real writer.