By 1982 (the same year, coincidentally, that John Gardner was killed in a motorcycle accident), Rhodes had weaned himself from the drugs and met the woman who would later become his second wife—Edna, a school psychologist whom Rhodes describes, simply, as an angel. The two have a daughter, Emily, who recently graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in public policy. During our conversation, Edna moved quietly in and out of the house, at one point driving to a neighboring farm to get a chicken to roast for our meal that evening (she told us the woman who sold it to her had to wade across a small river in order to hand it to her) and to pick up a package of madeleines from a French nun who didn't speak English. As we nibbled on that most literary of snacks (Rhodes counts Proust among his favorite authors—him and Faulkner), he spoke more about his relationship to writing.
"Once I discovered writing as a young man it was something I needed to do in order to cope with myself. I didn't feel sane unless I was writing. Writing gave me a way of focusing on my experiences that allowed me a certain level of equanimity, and without it I didn't have that. If I don't write I don't feel right. It always offered me a way to be able to calm my mind and to keep from becoming depressed and to basically understand myself and work through difficulties."
Despite this rather therapeutic approach, Rhodes does not write directly about his life. While all four of his novels have traces of autobiography—Des Moines as a birthplace of unshakable psychic weight (The Last Fair Deal Going Down), a grandfather who was a preacher (The Easter House), a teenager's escape from the Midwest to Philadelphia and back again (Rock Island Line), and a small Wisconsin town that is at once a bastion of solitude and a tightly woven community (Driftless)—Rhodes has never written about himself and probably never will. Instead, he projects onto his fictional characters in a way that allows him to see himself and his experience from a distance. "Through writing it feels like I'm participating in something meaningful—a dialogue."
David Rhodes's new novel, which is being published simultaneously with a new paperback edition of Rock Island Line, is reason to celebrate. There is nothing so affirming, so inspiring, as holding in your hands the black-and-white, spelled-out proof that an author who writes because he wants to write—because he must write, not because he wants to get published—who after tasting the kind of success that so many young writers thirst for then lived the next three decades in recurring pain and obscurity, has not lost one ounce of the mastery for which he was recognized in the first place.
A friend recently told Rhodes that he was the strongest person he's ever known, an assertion that the writer quickly dismissed. "I have been so fortunate with people being there," he says. "When I needed someone there, someone would be there. So many times in my life I've just thought, ‘This is the end,' and somebody from nowhere comes and says, ‘No, this isn't the end.' Every day I'm thankful for it."
Rhodes is currently working on several projects, one of which is a novel about the life of King Herod, though it has been slow going. He will almost certainly delve into it as his reentry into the world of publishing progresses. He's not one to bask in the limelight, even if its warmth is long overdue. "I'm still feeling overwhelmed by all the attention," he wrote in an e-mail, "which in some ways resembles the recent flooding."
As for the water that washed over Wonewoc, then continued to wreak havoc on parts of the upper Midwest, Iowa in particular, and in just about every state through which the Mississippi River flows, Rhodes wrote, "The water has receded in Wisconsin, and aside from an occasional puddle here and there, many landscapes have apparently decided to retain no visible signs of the crisis. Only in memory."
Kevin Larimer is the deputy editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.