The rain started on a Friday afternoon in early June. By the following Monday morning, up to ten inches had fallen on the lush, green fields of southern Wisconsin. Rivers crested several feet above normal, levees everywhere threatened to break, and dams strained against the deluge while residents of at least six small towns in the southwestern portion of the state were evacuated. The Kickapoo, a crooked tributary of the Wisconsin River that twists and turns from Wilton to Wauzeka, rose to twelve and a half feet, its water covering villages such as Gay Mills, Viola, and La Farge, where the residents of about fifty homes fled to higher ground. Forty miles to the east, Lake Delton, a 267-acre body of water that is a popular tourist destination, found a way around its dam and washed out Highway A, chewing a five-hundred-foot-wide channel to the Wisconsin River, which runs just seven hundred feet away. Within a few hours, seven hundred million gallons of water—and four well-appointed homes—surged into the river, leaving behind a muddy lakebed littered with boats, buckets, cinder blocks, and dead fish. On Tuesday, the Wisconsin State Journal announced the destruction on its front page ("A ‘CATASTROPHE'") in letters an inch and a half tall.
Nearly equidistant from the Kickapoo and Lake Delton, the Baraboo River meanders alongside the town of Wonewoc, whose eight hundred residents were spared heavy damage from the flooding, though portions of Highway Q were falling into the ditches as late as Tuesday afternoon. Novelist David Rhodes lives with his wife, Edna, on thirty-five acres of land about ten miles outside of the town, in the "driftless region" of Wisconsin, so named because its rugged terrain lacks the glacial deposits of rock, clay, sand, and silt—known as drift—that is typical of the state's landscape. Looking at the Rhodes' gravel driveway after the flooding, however, drift quickly comes to mind. More than nine inches of rain had washed down the jagged bluffs and hills, flowed through the valleys, and over their driveway, pushing hundreds of pounds of gravel across their front yard. From the shaded deck of his hundred-year-old wooden farmhouse, bejeweled with wind chimes, Rhodes looks out over the mess and considers aloud a fanciful plan to acquire from a local stonemason several life-size rhinoceroses and set them on the misplaced gravel with a sign that reads, Do Not Feed the Animals. Edna says this is not the first time he has voiced the idea.
Rhodes has seen this kind of flooding before—he's lived in Wonewoc since 1972, and in recent years his front yard has resembled a riverbed on more than one occasion. When he moved there from Iowa City, where he had been a student at the Writers' Workshop, his first novel, The Last Fair Deal Going Down, had already been published by Atlantic-Little, Brown. Within two years of his moving to Wonewoc, his second novel, The Easter House, was published by Harper & Row, its appearance compared by one New York Times critic to the publication of Sherwood Anderson's classic Winesburg, Ohio; within three years, his third, Rock Island Line, which eventually would be lauded by the legendary novelist John Gardner, was published by Harper & Row; within four years, his first wife was pregnant with his first child, a daughter; and within five years, a horrifying motorcycle accident broke his back, paralyzed him from the sternum down, threw his marriage into a tailspin from which it would not recover, and all but erased his name from contemporary literature for the next three decades, his books quietly falling out of print, forgotten.
Through it all, Rhodes has continued to write. He is indifferent about the business of publishing, immune to the imperative of making his work known, downright shy of the limelight. But the act of writing...well, that's a different story. Much more than a habit, far deeper than a discipline, writing is nothing less than his salvation. "It gives me a certain amount of peace," he says. So, when a college student in Grand Rapids came across Gardner's mention, in his seminal book On Becoming a Novelist, of Rhodes's perfectly focused eye for detail, starting a chain of minor events that led a young editor from the Minneapolis-based independent press Milkweed Editions to come knocking on the writer's door, Rhodes was ready with something to show, and then some. This month he is back after a thirty-three-year silence with a masterful new novel—Driftless.
Populated by an entire community of characters—the humble dairy farmers Cora and Graham Shotwell who rally against mysterious corporate forces; Violet Brasso and her sister, Olivia, a paraplegic who suddenly regains the use of her legs; Rusty Smith, a hard-working retiree who confronts his prejudices about the Amish; and Winifred Smith, a pastor at the local church who finds enlightenment where she least expects it—Driftless explores the uncommon connections that are forged, often unwittingly, between private people. Running throughout the novel is the story of July Montgomery, the main character of Rock Island Line, a vagabond who arrives in the small town of Words, Wisconsin, either to find a home where he can feel a part of other people's lives, or die trying.
In the midst of our seven-hour talk on that waterlogged Tuesday in June, David Rhodes stops occasionally to recall an obscure name or date. He lowers his head slightly, closes his eyes, and assumes the look of a man opening a small jar of food for a child, as if the act of remembering, though not terribly difficult, is not something to be taken lightly. He may hold that expression a beat or two longer than one might deem comfortable, until he recalls what is needed, but the hush lifts as he again fixes his deeply kind, compassionate eyes on his conversant and continues. His ability to articulate his intended meaning is impressive, but then he has always chosen his words carefully.
Rhodes grew up on the northeast edge of Des Moines in the late forties and fifties, the second of three sons. His father was a pressman at the Des Moines Register, his mother a birthright Quaker, a preacher's daughter who taught second graders at a local school. "Despite the fact that I lived outside of a big town I had kind of a provincial upbringing," he says. "You could go three hundred yards in one direction and be in a corn field; you could go about a half mile in the other direction and be in the city." Neither of his parents had a college education, but Rhodes says his mother pushed reading and religion above all; great literature, the Bible included, was omnipresent. At age fourteen, Rhodes was sent to Scattergood Friends School, in West Branch, about 125 miles east of Des Moines. Scattergood, founded in 1890 by Iowa Wilburite Quakers to provide a "guarded education" for their own children, was strict—and small. Rhodes was one of twelve kids in his graduating class.
After boarding school, in 1965, Rhodes moved north and attended Beloit College, on the southern edge of Wisconsin. He had planned to study science, but with eclectic interests and a restless spirit, he took classes in psychology, philosophy, and literature along with physics, chemistry, and calculus. "Those were real tumultuous times," Rhodes says of the mid-sixties. "The culture was changing. They wanted to run the school like it was the fifties, and the students were ready for something different." Rhodes was ready for something different too. Having lived first under the watchful eye of his mother and then within arm's length of her religious strictures at Scattergood, arriving at Beloit felt to him like being cut loose. "It was in some ways overwhelming. I didn't have the discipline to stick hardly with anything. Every time I turned around another good-looking girl would walk by, and I fell in love very easily. I was a real romantic, and everything meant a lot."