David Rhodes

Portrait of author, David Rhodes, and his dog, Bergeson, near his home in Verona, Wisconsin on Tuesday, June 25, 2013. (Stacey Wescott, Chicago Tribune / June 22, 2013)

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."