WONEWOC, Wis. — The stretch of road that forever changed David Rhodes' life and altered the trajectory of his writing career is just outside his house here in this remote part of southwestern Wisconsin, amid the rolling farmland and forests of the state's Driftless region.
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It was there, in 1977, that Rhodes crashed his motorcycle and broke his back, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down and putting a halt to the steady stream of critically acclaimed novels he had produced by the age of 25. He essentially went silent and his books fell out of print.
When he emerged in 2008 with his first book in more than three decades, Rhodes and his novel, "Driftless," were again greeted with critical acclaim. Now he is back with another novel, "Jewelweed," which delivers the same masterful storytelling and emotional punch as its predecessor and, like "Driftless," is set in the part of small-town Wisconsin that embraced Rhodes following his accident and, he said, continues to inspire him.
"Driftless" was sparked by the death of a good friend; Rhodes believed he knew the man but, at his funeral, saw so many people he had never met that he realized he did not know his friend so well at all. He wanted to write a novel where the central character is all but invisible.
"I realized I knew only a part of this guy, and I was overcome by this idea that, to really know this guy, I had to know all the people who knew him," Rhodes, who is 66, said one late morning as he sat in the airy dining room of his home here. "I was just thrilled with the idea."
"Jewelweed" sprang in part from an encounter with a prison inmate, a man who spent time at a maximum-security facility in Wisconsin; Rhodes wanted to explore what it takes for a prisoner to return to the free world while carrying forward some of his characters from "Driftless."
"I wanted to write about what has to happen to make a successful reentry," he said. "What it takes is people making room for someone."
Rhodes has dark, penetrating eyes and a deep, friendly voice; his words are carefully considered before they are spoken. His hair is graying and, on this day, well-mussed. He grew up in Iowa and was a reader and writer from the start. He attended the Iowa Writers' Workshop before coming to Wisconsin in 1972, finding the land that would become his home for the next four decades. Just as important, perhaps, he turned out three novels with such a keen sense for detail that John Gardner took notice in his 1983 book, "On Becoming a Novelist," calling Rhodes "one of the best eyes in recent fiction."
After so quickly emerging, he disappeared. Rhodes had traded his motorcycle to a friend for a bike, fearful he was taking too many risks. "A motorcycle," he said, "is a bad thing for a person who's trying to prove he's not afraid."
When the friend brought it back, this time souped up, Rhodes got on it in spite of premonitions that something bad was going to happen. He crashed and landed on his back; he spent the next two years in a hospital in Madison as he tried to recover. He and his wife divorced. He became angry.
The accident, and being in a wheelchair, left him in an "obsessively selfish place in my life."
"It was a huge blow to my identity to be in a wheelchair," he said. "It took a long time to get over seeing somebody and thinking, 'Yeah, but you can walk.'"
Although he did not publish any novels during the next three decades, he did not stop writing. In fact, he wrote a couple of novels but was not happy with them, declaring them "introverted, angry books." What's more, he did not have his "heart" in getting published.
Rhodes also wrote for other, surprising outlets. Embraced by a community that, he said, had sacrificed for him following his motorcycle accident, he helped out where he could. He wrote a newsletter for residents of a nearby nursing home, penned political advocacy material for dairy farmers, and crafted skits and plays for church functions. He got involved with a prison newsletter as well, and he played guitar in a gospel group. "I wasn't identifying so much with being a writer," he said quietly.
After a good friend died in December 1996, he began to write what became "Driftless" the next month. About a decade later, in a bit of serendipity, Ben Barnhart, an editor at Milkweed Editions, the independent publisher in Minneapolis, was given one of Rhodes' earlier books by a friend and fell in love with the work. Barnhart found Rhodes' characters alive and complex with rich interior stories. Rhodes, he said, captured rural Midwestern life without demeaning his characters.
"It sort of exalted those characters," said Barnhart.
Barnhart and his friend decided to find Rhodes, initially struggling but then locating him through his agent.
"I had a moment of hesitation that maybe he didn't want to be a public figure anymore and might resent two kids writing to him," said Barnhart, who has since left Milkweed and co-founded an online literary magazine called Revolver. "But we wanted to restore David to readership. People should be reading and discussing David Rhodes in the very same settings as Sherwood Anderson or John Gardner."
Barnhart approached Rhodes about reissuing "Rock Island Line," then asked if he had more material. As it happened, Rhodes had finished a first draft of "Driftless."
Rhodes said he knew "Driftless" was different from what he had been writing before — more mature, more thoughtful. It grappled with issues of time and the past and how we tend to experience them, issues Proust and Faulkner, two of Rhodes' influences, wrote about."One thing I wanted to emphasize is that there's always something new happening and, if we focus on the past, we miss it," he said.
Barnhart approached Rhodes about the work he had done after his accident, but Rhodes was adamant that he did not want it published. "He said he knew they weren't his best works and he didn't want to show them to me," said Daniel Slager, the publisher and chief executive at Milkweed. "The work was darker than what he wanted to put into the world."
Indeed, Barnhart said that while Rhodes agreed to the reiusses of his earlier books, he did not want to have to read them beforehand. Rhodes said he sees those works as less than fully realized. But he was excited about "Driftless." Barnhart, who edited the novel, found that booksellers and reviewers were excited about the book as well. Like Barnhart and his friend, they had been wondering what had happened to Rhodes over the intervening three decades. Writing in the Tribune, reviewer Alan Cheuse called "Driftless" the "best work of fiction to come out of the Midwest in many years, and it recreates the human condition as a condition of Wisconsin life."
Like "Driftless," "Jewelweed" is set in the small, rural town of Words — in that same Driftless region of Wisconsin where the glaciers of 10,000 years ago skipped over the land. "Jewelweed" also follows "Driftless" characters; in fact, Rhodes said, editors suggested that Rhodes continue the characters' stories in another novel, a challenge Rhodes saw as interesting. He had wanted to follow some of those characters anyway.
Much of "Jewelweed" is focused on Blake Bookchester and his return to Words after a stint in prison, how he adjusts but also how he is accepted in the town and what townspeople have to do to smooth his transition to the outside world. As in his other novels, Rhodes writes about Blake, his father and his other characters with a deep sensitivity. Blake hopes to connect again with his former lover, the woman nicknamed Dart, and though both of them are headstrong and difficult, you cannot help but root for them.
Small-town lives intersect in fascinating and unexpected ways in "Jewelweed," and sacrifice is common. In fact, many of the characters in "Jewelweed" push themselves to take a risk, to do something that, in some way, frightens them. Winnie overcomes her reluctance and visits Blake in prison. Her husband, Jacob, agrees to let Blake work at his shop. And a couple hires Dart to work in their home and care for their son even though, in Rhodes' words, Dart is "a little iffy."
In many ways, "Jewelweed" is an examination of leaps of faith, the kind of sacrifices a community makes when one of its own is in dire straits — not unlike the sacrifice and generosity that Rhodes' neighbors and friends displayed during his long recuperation after his motorcycle crash.
In each instance, the characters in "Driftless" and "Jewelweed" are rendered with such care and precision that this little known region of the Midwest becomes dazzlingly alive. At the same time, Rhodes' decision to publish again marks a welcome return of a master storyteller of real people who live in our small towns.
"I know it must be gratifying or exciting to write about murderers and people like that," Rhodes said. "But I don't know anyone like that. The people I know, if you're lying in the road, they'll come and help you out of it."
"Jewelweed" By David Rhodes, Milkweed, 448 pages, $26