Milkweed Editions, 2008
352 pp., 28.59
Reviewed by Phil Christman
The Best American Novelist You've Never Heard Of
When David Rhodes' second novel, The Easter House, was published in 1974, critics compared it favorably to Sherwood Anderson's best work—no mean feat for a writer then in his twenties. But the differences between the two writers are as instructive as the similarities. Anderson's characters could barely wait to get out of the Midwest. Driftless, Rhodes' new novel, is an act of loving and intelligent attention to those who remain.
But wait, you say, who is David Rhodes? (I love answering this question.) Before he lapsed into a thirty-year silence, Rhodes wrote three of the best novels of the 1970s—wild, unclassifiable fables that have the texture of dreams. In The Last Fair Deal Going Down (1972), he posits the existence of a secret hellish city underneath Des Moines, a place created from the suppressed emotion and unstated guilt of all those taciturn, stoic Great Plains communities. There are so many ways this premise could have gone wrong—it could have read like Max Weber by way of Dean Koontz—but Rhodes renders it in such detail that it never pales into mere allegory. The Easter House is even better: a study of existential free fall, in which a drifter named C marries a woman named Cell, and they make their living overseeing a junkyard, which grows into an enormously profitable off-the-books swap meet. Like several of Rhodes' heroes, C tries to live without any of the ordinary human inhibitions and connections—he doesn't even want any other letters in his name—so it's his bad luck that he inhabits a novel where even the background characters are so interesting that I, at least, wouldn't be able to ignore them if I tried.
Both of these novels feel of a piece with the so-called New Fiction of the early '70s—they're surreal, comic-booky, and occasionally nightmarish, like some of the works of Gass, Barth, Barthelme, Hawkes, and John Gardner. But where many of these writers' characters are translucent—we see right through them to some set of philosophical issues they're meant to raise—Rhodes' are opaque: we believe in them and their histories, in their families and their strange, histrionic gestures, without fully understanding them. This is even truer of Rock Island Line (1975), a novel that eschews the overt magic realism of its predecessors and winds up being both more magical and more real. Rock Island Line takes July Montgomery (a minor character from The Easter House) and puts him through hell: orphaned as a young boy, July runs away to Philadelphia and (like C before him) tries to live without emotional entanglements. We see the psychological explanation for his behavior (he doesn't want to be hurt again, etc.), but we also recognize that there are larger, more interesting issues at stake in July's experiment (for that's exactly what it is)—his attempt is also Thoreau's attempt in Walden, to reduce life to its essentials. Who wouldn't like to know how that turns out?
The book has a tragicomic quality that is incredibly difficult for any writer to sustain. It follows July from misery to elation and back again (and again), while rendering all of these states with the sort of fresh and particular observations that make it seem as if nobody has ever written about love, or anger, or grief, or joy before. Here, for example, is July, winding up a phone conversation with the woman he's trying not to love:
"Goodbye," he said and tried to climb into the receiver after her voice in that second before she hung up. Then the hissing stillness. He let the cradle down with his finger and fitted the round earpiece into it, disengaging himself from it as though it were a delicate package-bomb. He backed away and stood in the doorway … . For an instant it was as if he could see through things, the bed, the bathroom door, the refrigerator.
Notice how illogical, but utterly believable, July's feelings are: the slightly scared carefulness with which he replaces that phone receiver, the sense of sudden X-ray vision. Rhodes' method here is the same as Tolstoy's. He uses utterly plain, direct language to let the bewitching strangeness of micro-emotions—those instantaneous reactions and imaginings that we summarize, for convenience's sake, under abstract headings like love or fear—stand out.
The book has an odd structure. It begins with the story of July's grandparents, Della and Wilson Montgomery, whom we meet on the first pages, rocking a porch swing "slowly and conscientiously … like cautious, quiet children." (This opening passage was so good that John Gardner, no pushover, later cited it as an example of the importance of a writer's "eye" in his On Becoming a Novelist.) We learn of July's family, his town, long before his birth. This is not what most novelists would do, but Rhodes knows exactly what he's after. Once we know July's family, we also know the specific gravity of his memories. We know why their weight on him is intolerable—and inescapable. They haunt us as they haunt him.
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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