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A rewarding portrait of rural life from an author silent for more than three decades.

By Yvonne Zipp / October 20, 2008

F. Scott Fitzgerald may be an American classic, but he was pretty conclusively wrong about one thing: There are plenty of second acts in American lives. In fact, cheering on a comeback story may just be a national pastime. (It’s one of our more endearing qualities.)

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One of the more welcome second acts in years just landed on bookstore shelves this fall. In the 1970s, Iowa native David Rhodes published three critically lauded novels and seemed on his way to a productive and highly regarded career as a writer. Then in 1977, he was in a motorcycle accident that left him partially paralyzed.

Thirty years later, an editor from Milkweed Editions contacted Rhodes’s agent, who, according to interviews, didn’t even know Rhodes was still writing. Milkweed has just published his new novel, Driftless.

Critics aren’t collectively regarded as a warm-hearted bunch, but even Anton Ego (the imperious critic from “Ratatouille”) would have to applaud Rhodes. What makes the story even better is that “Driftless” is such a rewarding read – a surely written, patient book about small-town life.

Between “Driftless” and David Wroblewski’s “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle,” rural Wisconsin is turning into a hotbed of American letters this year. (Manhattan probably isn’t eating its heart out, but would-be authors might be booking scouting weekends in Madison.)

“Driftless” follows the stories of about a half-dozen residents of the tiny town of Words, Wis., “a place so rural God left his shoes there.”

It’s located in the state’s Driftless region, the geography of which gives the book its title.  (There’s even a mini-Michener prologue that sets “Driftless” in motion by explaining how this particular corner of Wisconsin happened to escape the glaciers of the Ice Age.

Words is not located on any maps, and there are no road signs pointing the way.

“This lack of posted information can be partly explained by the constraining budget of the Thistlewaite County Highway Commission and partly by the assumption of its rural members: people already know where they are,” Rhodes writes. “No provisions are made for those living without a plan.”

If somehow, an outsider were to stumble on Words, the drama would not be immediately apparent. Dairy farmers Grahm and Cora Shotwell have uncovered evidence of corruption at the giant milk cooperative.


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