Yesterday Frank Wilson pointed to a piece about Wisconsin author David Rhodes. The headline to the article is “The Best American Novelist You’ve Never Heard Of,” the kind of statement that would only irritate me if it were in, say, Esquire. But it’s in Books & Culture (“a Christian review”), and Phil Christman makes an interesting case for a writer who I confess is a complete blind spot for me:
[Rhodes' 1975 novel, Rock Island Line,] is a masterpiece, one of the greatest novels ever to come out of the American Midwest, and the potential it reveals seems limitless. But he didn’t publish again for over thirty years. A motorcycle accident in 1977 left him paralyzed physically and emotionally, and his books, one by one, fell out of print. By the late ’90s, there were only a handful of places on earth (outside rural Wisconsin, where he resides) where anybody was likely to run across reference to his books.
Christman isn’t alone in his enthusiasm. Poets & Writers has a nice, widgety primer on Rhodes’ work, pointing out that his second novel, The Easter House, earned comparisons to Winesburg, Ohio. The reason for the recent chatter about Rhodes is the publication of his first novel in 30-odd years, Driftless, by Milkweed Editions. As a story in the Madison, Wisc., alt-weekly Isthmus explains, it was Milkweed editor Ben Barnhart who motivated Rhodes to publish a new novel. He’d already been working on one:
The seed behind Driftless came about after a good friend of Rhodes’ died suddenly. “I felt I knew him pretty well,” says Rhodes, but at his funeral, “there were about 300 people, and I knew about 10.” He realized that “you only know a tiny little part of your friend, and to know your friend totally, you’d have to know the people that meant something to him, and the way he meant something to them, too.”