David Rhodes: Driftless is his first published novel in over 30 years.
The story of how David Rhodes ended up moving to a farmhouse on the western edge of Sauk County back in 1972 could be an outtake from his latest work, Driftless (Milkweed Editions) - a terrific novel that coalesces around the unexpected connections among people in the fictional community of Words, Wis.
Rhodes had recently graduated from the Iowa Writers Workshop and wanted to buy some land, but "living in the country was just too expensive in Iowa, at least in the places I was at."
His brother had once spent a summer near Lone Rock, and Rhodes remembered the beauty of the countryside there. While scouting places for sale, Rhodes' father steered him a little farther north toward the tiny town of Valton, where he said Rhodes' mother's family had lived for a time many years before.
"He said, 'I spread some of your mother's ashes at the cemetery up there, so why don't we go visit them?'" Rhodes remembers. "There was a tiny gas station and a country store, and there were a couple of guys hanging around, so we asked if there were any places for sale, and this man in overalls just got in the back seat and said, 'I'll show ya four.'"
That's how Rhodes ended up living two miles from the spot where his grandfather began his preaching career as a 20-year-old, around 1900.
Rhodes had already achieved early success, publishing three novels with major houses in quick succession in the early 1970s (The Last Fair Deal Going Down, The Easter House and Rock Island Line).
He's has been living in Sauk County since, writing a lot - but not publishing, since a motorcycle accident in 1976 left him paralyzed from the waist down.
"Those were pretty dark days, and I was very unhappy with the quality of what I was writing," says Rhodes. "And very unhappy with the world vision I was holding." He wrote "at least three novels" during that time that won't, he says, see the light of day.
Eventually things changed. He got off the painkillers he'd become addicted to; he had kids. "Getting involved with something other than yourself" is very important, says Rhodes.
"Writing is extremely important to me; it's a way of processing my experiences and feelings. It makes it possible for me to stay alive, I guess," says Rhodes. "It's not that I don't picture an audience when I write, because I do. But in terms of being public, or the career part of it...." Rhodes trails off.
Then came "a sound I didn't think I'd ever really hear again," says Rhodes. A publisher came calling - looking for him.
Editor Ben Barnhart of the Minneapolis-based publisher Milkweed Editions had been turned on to Rhodes' long-out-of-print novels by a friend and tracked him down via that aid to fledgling detectives everywhere, the Internet. Was Rhodes working on anything?
Fortunately, he had been writing a book with "a different kind of approach, that was fairly exciting to me."
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." This sparked the form of the novel, in which the main character is known less than the people he interacts with.
Driftless incorporates multiple plots that in many novels might be the basis for the whole book - one farm family's blowing the whistle on corruption in the local milk co-op, for instance. But here, these are among the many things that happen in the lives of the people who make up the community. Rhodes tells the story without haste, much as he speaks - thoughtfully, with quiet insight. The characters' perceptions about the landscape, their lives and each other are continually arresting yet almost casually right on.
And Rhodes has turned in what may be the best depiction ever of a Wisconsin snow storm: "The screen on the front porch of the Shotwell farmhouse presented almost no barrier at all, and the tiny flakes drove freely through the woven aluminum diamonds, accumulating in foot-deep drifts in the corners, the sloped ridges as perfectly formed as bell curves drawn by mathematical monks. Similar equations were plotted in the corners of windows - illustrations in crystalline grace and concave solitude."
The good news: the novel is available and ready to be bought and read and talked about. The bad news: Rhodes hasn't planned any readings, in Madison or elsewhere: "I'm pretty shy about those kinds of things."