There are many reasons why someone might disappear. That was what Ben Barnhart thought when an online search turned up the phone number and address of David Rhodes. It was the summer of 2004, and Barnhart, then a fledgling editor at Milkweed Editions, had received one of those "You Have to Read This!" missives from his friend Phil Christman. "I ran across Dave's name in John Gardner's On Becoming a Novelist back when I was in college, about ten years ago," says Christman, who is now a student in the MFA program at the University of South Carolina, Columbia. "Gardner cites him as having ‘one of the best eyes in recent fiction,' which in Gardner's lexicon means not just that he's a good observer but that he has a take on the world that seems fresh, underivative, compelling." Years later, having finally found Rhodes's novels in a library in Saint Paul, where he had been volunteering for AmeriCorps, Christman told his friend at Milkweed about his new favorite author.
"Being the reluctant person to take recommendations that I am, I sat on it for about three or four months before finally picking up Rock Island Line myself, but was then immediately pulled in by Dave's writing, his ability to develop characters and his amazingly strong economy of language," says Barnhart. "Together, Phil and I were bemoaning the fact that there were no new novels by this author. The last one was published in 1975 and nearly no one had ever heard of him. There were a handful of references that we'd run across online, but in general no one knew the story. His bio claimed he had lived in Wisconsin, so we did a white pages search on the guy and it turned up an address. It was that moment that gave me a lot of pause, because I had no idea what had happened to Dave other than that he had written three amazing books and then disappeared. I thought, ‘Maybe he doesn't want to come back out into the world; maybe something happened.'"
Rather than call Rhodes out of the blue and ask, "What have you been doing with the last thirty years of your life?" Barnhart did some more digging around and discovered that Rhodes had been represented by Lois Wallace, who before meeting the author in the early seventies had left the William Morris Agency and started Wallace, Aitken & Sheil. (When Kanon left Atlantic-Little, Brown following the publication of Rhodes's first novel, Rhodes's new editor didn't take to his second book, so he suggested he meet Wallace, who signed him—shortly after she signed Don DeLillo; White Noise is dedicated to her—and subsequently sold The Easter House and Rock Island Line to Harper & Row.)
"At this point I was thinking that being in touch with Dave was more like sending a glorified fan letter," Barnhart says. "I wrote to Lois and didn't really expect to hear anything from her soon, if at all. But then about a week later I got a call from her." Wallace told Barnhart she hadn't thought of her long-lost client for years but that, prompted by his letter, she'd e-mailed him and discovered that, yes, he was still alive, still writing. (Rhodes says he very nearly didn't receive that e-mail, which had landed in his junk mail folder.)
Encouraged by Wallace's quick response, Barnhart and Christman wrote a letter to Rhodes and asked if they could visit. "He was very gracious. He said, ‘My wife and I would love to have you come,'" Barnhart says. "Events began to transpire quickly with an agent involved." Even before Barnhart traveled to Wonewoc, Wallace encouraged Rhodes to send the editor the novel he'd been working on, Driftless. In June 2005 he did, signing his cover letter:
I know Midwesterners are accused of talking too much about the weather, but that criticism must surely come from people who don't have weather like ours. These last few weeks have been filled with the bright, indolent humidity of summer, offset by sudden, tyrannical darkness and booming threats of supernatural violence. Not mentioning such revolutionary experiences would be inhuman.
I hope you are well and look forward to meeting you.