Milkweed Editions, 2008
352 pp., $24.00
Reviewed by Phil Christman
The Best American Novelist You've Never Heard Of
Rhodes makes one gamble after another in Rock Island Line, and they all pay off. The book is a masterpiece, one of the greatest novels ever to come out of the American Midwest, and the potential it reveals seems limitless. But he didn't publish again for over thirty years. A motorcycle accident in 1977 left him paralyzed physically and emotionally, and his books, one by one, fell out of print. By the late '90s, there were only a handful of places on earth (outside rural Wisconsin, where he resides) where anybody was likely to run across reference to his books.
One of few places was that quote, mentioned above, in Gardner's On Becoming a Novelist. I happened to read that book at an impressionable age, and I got curious. Who was this Rhodes character? Nobody seemed to know, not even Google. (David Rhodes, jazz guitarist, and "Rock Island Line," folk song, kept getting in the way.) It took awhile to track the books down, but I read them with mounting awe and then forced them on all my friends. One of these friends happened to be Ben Barnhart, an editor at Milkweed Editions in Minneapolis, and it is through his and Milkweed's tireless efforts that Rock Island Line is back in print, accompanied by the new Rhodes novel, Driftless. (Let us hope that Last Fair Deal and Easter House quickly follow.)
Rhodes has worked on Driftless for most of the past decade. It's one of several novels he's written since his accident, but the only one he seems interested in publishing (the others, he recently told Poets and Writers' Kevin Larimer, are endless, depressing, and not very good). It's an ambitious, multi-plot novel about an entire rural community, the farming village of Words, Wisconsin. Rhodes tries to give all the residents of his imaginary town equal time, which is almost impossible to do, and for this reason, the book's opening feels a bit jumbled, a bit rushed; the early chapters must introduce us to so many people and so much history that they sometimes trip themselves up in flashback. But stay with it. In the end, the book is as moving, intelligent, and funny as anything published in recent years.
None of the several plots seems to dominate, but here are a few of the more salient developments: A Quaker minister has a mystical epiphany in a river one afternoon. The only person she can find to tell about it is a middle-aged, pious invalid, who, in a fit of anger against God (who chose to visit the minister and not her), promptly sets out for the local casino. Two dairy farmers discover that their milk cooperative is defrauding the government; when they try to blow the whistle, they're exposed to a pattern of harassment and interference that would've impressed Nixon. In the woods, a libertarian militia practices its maneuvers. Rhodes weaves these (and many other) threads together so carefully that only now, pulling them apart one by one, do I fully appreciate how unlikely, how hard-won, this book's coherence is. The plots comment on, contrast with, counterpoint each other with marvelous subtlety. At the center of all of them stands Rock Island Line's July Montgomery, who has insinuated himself into this community and made himself indispensable to it. He has aged believably, and it's a pleasure to see him again.
Though Driftless is a deeply contemporary tale—what it has to say about the way corporations treat small farmers is, for example, quite pressing—it also has the architectural complexity of the great 19th-century novels, but without the gimcrackery too often required to hold their stories together. Driftless has unlikely coincidences of its own, but deploys them differently: they feel rather like glimpses of a possible order than proofs of a definite one. The book, that is, partakes as much of the moral universe of Magnolia as of Middlemarch. And it earns comparison to both.
Phil Christman is a graduate student in the MFA program at the University of South Carolina.
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