Where future and past collide

  • Article by: ETHAN RUTHERFORD , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 3, 2008 - 1:31 PM

Residents of a small Wisconsin town are nestled in the past -- but the future is fast bearing down upon them.

Author David Rhodes, 2008.

When David Rhodes was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident in 1977, he was the ascendant young author of three novels and had been recognized by none other than John Gardner for having "one of the best eyes in recent fiction." More than 30 years have passed since the publication of "Rock Island Line," leaving readers to wonder if a new book was coming at all. It was, and it has. His new novel, "Driftless" -- a symphonic paean to the stillness that can be found in certain areas of the Midwest--has just been published, and it was worth the wait.

When claiming, in fiction, that character is destiny, it is easy to forget just how thoroughly it is that setting determines character. And setting is everything in this novel, which takes place in the driftless region of southwestern Wisconsin -- an area named for its being "untouched by the shaping hands" of glaciers. Nestled in this region is Words, a one-stop-sign town of roughly 40 people, a church and a repair shop, a village "more firmly attached to the past than to the present, and only tentatively engaged in the future." It's a sleepy community, the sort of place where being left alone is good enough (and perhaps desirable), where neighbors prefer visits to phone calls, doors are left unlocked and where common decency isn't seen as an outmoded value.

But things are changing -- small farmers are being ripped off by national distributors, a militia is forming in the woods, a gigantic black cougar that draws "all colors to it, like water into a drain" lurks threateningly. The outside world is encroaching on Words in every way imaginable, and the central, collective worry of the book becomes how much longer the surrounding tops of maple, oak and hickory can form their "lumpy, embroidered edge against infinity."

In alternating chapters, Rhodes introduces us to the many characters who have found themselves in Words, and, almost effortlessly, brings each to vivid life: a pastor who undergoes a spiritual crisis and epiphany; a musician struggling to create something beautiful; a farming family on the verge of financial collapse attempting to hold itself together, an invalid coming to terms with a miraculous recovery. Holding all of these overlapping lives together is July Montgomery, a stoic man whose past contains "a deformity." He is the invisible hand of the novel, facilitating introductions, and it is through him that Rhodes poses the question on everyone's mind: In an unstable world, where [does] the real value of life come from?

The writing in "Driftless" is beautiful and surprising throughout: A night sky appears "as though stirred with a silver oar" and snow falls like "shredded gauze"; reams of paper spreads "over the bare wooden floor like great sheets of sea foam"; a mower surrounded by tall grass is "mired like an abandoned rowboat in seaweed"; and an invalid views her "nearly useless legs hanging like matched clock weights out of her organdy dress." One could go on in awe like this for pages.

It's this poetic pointillism that originally made Rhodes famous, and one could be forgiven for answering July Montgomery's question about the real value of life by simply referencing the beauty of Rhodes' writing and saying: Right here.

Ethan Rutherford is an MFA candidate at the University of Minnesota.

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