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After the Flood: A Profile of David Rhodes

Kevin Larimer

David Rhodes is talking about fate. He holds his strong hands out in front of his chest, cupping them carefully, as if he's hiding something fragile—an egg, or a newly hatched bird. "Our view in physics is that when you have two particles that are coming together they are unrelated to each other, but that after they interact their movements can be explained through that interaction, because one will have a certain momentum in this way and the other in this way. And then it makes sense that they have this relationship that comes back to here," he says, moving his hands quickly apart, then slowly back together again. "But if you reverse the arrow of time, then all of a sudden you see they were related from the beginning and it's just a myth that we tell ourselves that they were completely autonomous and unrelated as they come together. Experience comes to us as a whole, and to understand it intellectually we pull it apart and we separate one from the other in that process of abstraction. But the experience is always bigger than the understanding of that experience."

Rhodes has spent a long time trying to understand and come to terms with what he experienced one day in the spring of 1977, and every day since then. He had been living in Wonewoc for five years, his third novel had been published to enthusiastic reviews, and his wife had given birth to a girl, Alexandra, just two weeks earlier. Gone were the unmoored days of his youth when he rebelled against his provincial upbringing. Gone were the Iowa City hours of writing in his abandoned farmhouse. Gone, too, was the motorcycle that Rhodes had ridden ever since he was old enough to drive—he had given it to a neighbor a few months before his daughter was born. He had become afraid of it, he says; he had started taking too many chances. He had new responsibilities now: He had a baby to think about.

Then came the premonitions. There were dreams in which he was paralyzed, doctors poking needles in his body. Then there was an incident at the Sauk County Health Care Center, where Rhodes worked the night shift, looking after thirty or forty elderly men. One night, he confronted a man who wouldn't go to bed. "He was in the common room down there in the middle of the night and he kept telling me over and over again, he kept saying, ‘Do you hear that noise?' And I said, ‘No, I don't hear the noise, you gotta go to bed.' ‘That's a motorcycle,' he said. ‘Do you know how dangerous motorcycles are? Do you know how careful you have to be on them?' And I kept saying, ‘No, you gotta go to bed.' And that was the night before it happened."

After months of trying to get it started, the neighbor to whom Rhodes had given his motorcycle finally succeeded, and drove it over to show Rhodes, who decided to take it for one last ride. "I was driving too fast, the bike went down. I hit a rock in the ditch and I flew up in the air and landed on my back and I was paralyzed from that moment on." Rhodes spent nearly two years in a hospital in Madison, about eighty-five miles southwest of Wonewoc; his wife and daughter stayed in an apartment nearby. When he was released, the three of them moved back home.

But less than a year later his wife and daughter moved out, this time for good. By then Rhodes was addicted to the morphine doctors had prescribed for the phantom pains he was experiencing throughout most of his body. "It was a difficult, dark period of time," he says. "I wrote a number of things, and I put a minimal effort into seeking publication for them. I used the first rejection as a reason not to pursue it any further, because I was profoundly unhappy with myself and I was profoundly unhappy with the writing I was doing. It was a long period of writing novels that were very long and very dark. I don't think I'll ever want to see anything ever done with those. I was working through things in a way that I didn't have enough of a vision. And I was too angry and I was too bitter."

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This is fantastic news! Ever since a roommate of mine loaned me a copy of "The Last Fair Deal Going Down" I've been somewhat obsessed with this writer who penned three incredible, singular, weird novels and then seemed to disappear. I found my own copy of Last Fair Deal and "The Easter House" on Amazon. They were old library copies and were reasonably priced. I could never find a copy of "Rock Island Line" for less than $35-$50, though. I considered biting the bullet and ponying up the cash, but every time I looked back, the price on it had gone up. Same with the other two. Hell, right now, Easter House is $185.82 on Amazon and there are no copies of Deal even available. I even, for a brief moment, contemplated stealing the lone copy of Rock Island Line from a certain library at a certain SEC university. Nobody had checked it out in many, many years. But I knew I couldn't face a library thief every morning in the mirror. I hope Milkweed will see fit to reprint the first two novels. I'm really grateful that I won't have to knock over a liquor store to be able to buy Rock Island Line. I'm so happy that Rhodes is alive and well and writing. I hope he finally gets all of the recognition that he is due.