After serving time for a drug trafficking conviction, Blake Bookchester is paroled. He returns to the rural Wisconsin town of Words and learns that life on the outside is a haunted existence. Seeing his father for the first time in years, Blake is struck by the man’s thin, slightly stooped shoulders and notices that he favors one leg over the other. “His [father’s] aging seemed to Blake like a scar inflicted by the time he’d been away — caused by Blake’s absence.” Wracked by guilt, Blake keeps his distance from his former lover, a single mother named Dart, though he still longs for her. In the moral universe of “Jewelweed,” longing can never be untangled, unburdened, from the shames of the past.
“Jewelweed” is novelist David Rhodes’ fifth book. He published three acclaimed novels during the 1970s, and then, in 1976, a motorcycle accident paralyzed him from the chest down, stalling his rapid literary ascent. His magical realism is imbued with spirituality, and his fine depictions of pastoral America earned him comparisons to Sherwood Anderson and Marilynne Robinson. So it was something of a literary event when he published “Driftless” in 2008, ending his 30-year silence. The novel did well, and in 2010, Rhodes was honored with a Guggenheim Fellowship.
The community of Words is a place to find redemption. The ensemble cast includes a pastor on the verge of leaving her congregation; wealthy Amy and Buck Roebuck, whose teenager, Kevin, suffers from cystic fibrosis; Dart’s son, Ivan, a wise-beyond-his-years 10-year-old who bonds with the minister’s precocious son.
A hermit lives in the woods and carves and burns wood statues that are his war memories. A child, known only as the Wild Boy, stalks the cliffs and valleys surrounding Words. Characters toil under the weight of past deeds, and yet the future is a “primal flame, a vital burning, steady and reassuring.” This duality is best summed up by Dart, when she explains to Amy Roebuck, her friend and employer, that there are two Darts: one is a woman who is suspicious, who “lies to keep bad things from happening.” Then there’s the Dart who is “ready for whatever comes next, seeing everything that happened and knowing it doesn’t have to mean anything about me now.”
“Jewelweed” is a novel of forgiveness, a generous ode to the spirit’s indefatigable longing for love. Yet its grace is occasionally eclipsed by Rhodes’ desire to make his point: The cast is given to frequent, wistful devotions to politics, morality, love and one reader longed for a subtler empathy, and wished Rhodes had trusted his reader to infer — from the raw materials of his plot, and his lyric evocations — the heart of his story.
Kathryn Savage’s book reviews have appeared in Ploughshares. She is the residency program coordinator at the Loft Literary Center.