Tuesday, December 7, 2010


David Rhodes published three well-received novels in the early 1970s. In 1977 he was in a motorcycle accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down. Driftless is his first published novel in 30 years. I found it extraordinary for reasons I will try to convey.

The title refers to a region in southwestern Wisconsin that last glacier did not reach. Consequently, the glacial deposits of rock, clay, sand, and silt—drift—are missing. The book is set in this Driftless Region, in and around the village of Words, a town so small small that state maps no longer show it.

I will not attempt to summarize the story because the book contains many stories. It is not, however, a book of linked short stories. Driftless has perhaps a dozen main characters, some connected by blood, some connected socially (it's a small town after all). Not everyone knows every else personally, although almost everyone knows July Montgomery, who might be called the protagonist except that his actions are fairly low key. Some of the narrative threads are connected, but not all. We see characters grow and change in believable ways as their actions touch one another.

I had a sense of Rhodes listening carefully to everything he heard for the last 30 years, thinking about it, and shaping it. The writing is often lovely: "It was cooler here, and she felt her body relax as she threaded through the calligraphy of underbrush." "Olivia lay in her dark room without sleeping. Outside the window she could see a thin sliver of moon nailed against the sky." Yet the writing does not become so lovely that it distracts from the narrative motion.

I like the book because it is about people I do not often read about: farmers, handymen, a small-town preacher (whose epiphany is one of the high points of the book), and more. None of them are professional people—unless you consider farming a profession—nor, for the most part, are they highly educated. They have to contend with weather, wildlife, broken machinery, corporate corruption, medical emergencies, accidental death, their own prejudices, and more.

As a side issue, I was interested to see that Driftless was published by Milkweed Editions, a non-profit, independent literary publisher. I don't know if Rhodes tried to sell the manuscript to a commercial publisher (Harper & Row published his last book), and I don't know what kind of advance or royalty contract he might have, but I suspect both are modest. Milkweed, after all, has to stay in business. I can only hope that the word spreads and that this interesting portrait of contemporary midwestern rural life finds the large and enthusiastic audience it deserves.

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