Driftless

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

By

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.)

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.

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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.

Meanwhile, Grahm’s sister plays bass in a local band and works at the local plastics factory. Retired farmer Rusty Smith is trying to get his house fixed up before his wife’s mother and sister come for a visit. Jacob Helm repairs machines and grieves for his dead wife.

Recently arrived Pastor Winifred is touched by the divine spirit, and finds everyday life very hard to tolerate after her revelation. Invalid Olivia Brasso, seeking a similar sign from God, gambles away her own and her sister’s life savings.

Oh, and there’s a cougar lurking about.

Tying them all together is July Montgomery, a drifter (and the main character from one of Rhodes’s earlier novels) who fetched up in Words 20 years earlier.

There’s dog fighting and a blizzard, and slowly the characters discover the ways in which they are unexpectedly linked.

“Driftless” shares a rhythm with the farming community it documents, and its reflective pace is well-suited to characters who are far more comfortable with hard work than with words.

(It’s almost impossible to imagine any of them – with the possible exception of Gail – writing a blog. It’s probably no coincidence that she’s the least compelling character.)

The story lines all unfold gradually, requiring patience and a certain amount of concentration from a reader until they intersect.
Rhodes gives fairly equal time to each character’s story, whether they start out as sanctimonious prigs (Olivia) or crotchety,
borderline-racist types (Rusty) and makes a reader appreciate the humanity in each of them.

The evenhandedness illustrates impressive self-control, because it’s easy to imagine an “A Civil Action”-style courtroom drama centered around the upright, naive Shotwells who take on the nefarious Agro giant. (The biblical David had it easy – Goliath didn’t have his own team of lawyers.)

Folks in Words aren’t generally enamored of progress, and tend to doubt that technological advances really count as leaps forward for civilization.

But it’s not a weary feeling, at least, not as Winifred experiences it.

“I don’t think ‘progress’ or ‘history’ really exist,” Winifred muses. “They’re made up. People imagine them to flatter themselves. We live in an eternal present, as does every other living thing. It changes, yet doesn’t change. We can no more understand the past than we can fly. The idea of progress and history is a product of pure cultural arrogance.”

Or, as Olivia puts it more succinctly: “New is only old rearranged.”

Rhodes has a strong authorial voice and firmly but gently herds his many narratives forward. But one side effect is that at times his voice penetrates the characters’ dialogue – making them sound didactic.

But since few readers will want to argue with the novel’s humane message, it’s ultimately a small failing in a wry, generous book that believes that, “Things ought to be the way people think they are – when it’s possible.”

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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