Milkweed Editions, 2008
408 pages, $15.00
You must read this book. I feel better now that I've got that out of the way.
Rock Island Line is a masterful novel with a protagonist who will be permanently burned into your memory. July Montgomery had me at hello: he is more than just a fictional character, he is a real, breathing person, someone I never want to let go. Rock Island Line tells the story of July, a boy from Iowa who grows up in prelapsarian innocence, an innocence that is shattered by the accidental deaths of both his parents. This accident precipitates July's flight from his Iowa home, toward a life unknown.
Rhodes meticulously creates both an inner and an outer life for July. Seldom in literature have I encountered a character so deeply solitary and intact. His deepest bond for much of the book is with a stray cat named Butch. July and Butch spend two years living underground, below a Philadelphia trolley track. Rhodes makes July's underground home both poignant and believable.
As I read Rock Island Line I kept asking myself why I was thinking of Faulkner. The resemblance is not stylistic, although Rhodes has a reverence for language that approaches Faulkner's--there is nothing derivative in Rock Island Line--and I was not surprised to find that the two writers Rhodes reveres are Faulkner and Proust. That makes sense, because there is something of Faulkner's use of language and sense of fate, and something of Proust's sensitivity to consciousness and memory in this novel.
The writing in Rock Island Line is magnificent. It is so good that, without the skeleton of a good story and pitch-perfect characterization, the reader could simply be swept away in the beauty of the prose. Here is an example of how mood, setting, and characterization come together in this novel:
As July grows from boyhood to manhood, in his strange solitude, he begins to long for connection and love. This desire draws him a little out of his shell, like a shy animal being tempted from safety by a kind voice. He begins to work towards something resembling a real life, and for a time his only solace is in books and furtive, lonely visits to a museum. There he meets a woman, and with a single encounter--just a few words--this intensely lonely man realizes how much is missing from his life:At one corner in the middle of a very ominous-looking neighborhood, where the houses were three-story stone and the lights inside made them seem like rows of tremendous horses' skulls with candles ritualistically set inside that gleamed from the eyes and nostrils, Charlotte stopped and stood for several moments as though trying to decide where to go. (191)
Rock Island Line is dark and brilliant at the same time. If this book were weather, it would be the kind of incandescent thunderstorm that frightens you, yet makes you feel alive, and glad to be so. This novel will grapple with your emotions, lift you up and crush you. In the end it made me cry. Everything that happens in Rock Island Line has the inevitability of Greek tragedy and real life. My only consolation upon finishing this book was the knowledge that Driftless, the most recent novel from Rhodes, has July Montgomery as a character.After that, July felt an emptiness come into his life. There was something missing from everything. He turned to look at her in bewilderment, his eyes blazing. She looked back and smiled a quick smile. Immediately he dropped his gaze, blushed and said quite abruptly, "Well, I guess if you like it, that's fine." Then he walked quickly away like a child underfoot. (245)
The story behind Rock Island Line is nearly as enthralling as the novel itself. Rhodes had completed his first novel, The Last Fair Deal Going Down, while he was still a student in the MFA program at University of Iowa. After graduating from Iowa, Rhodes published two more novels, The Easter House and Rock Island Line. He had achieved some critical acclaim, and his wife had just given birth to their daughter. Rhodes had given up his motorcycle to a neighbor, feeling it was too dangerous. Then, after trying unsuccessfully to start the bike, the neighbor brought it by to show Rhodes he had finally gotten it started. Rhodes decided to take the motorcycle for one last spin, and had the fateful accident that broke his back, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down. He virtually disappeared from public view.
For more than thirty years David Rhodes wrote in total obscurity. His books fell out of print. His marriage ended, he struggled with a morphine addiction (the result of pain from his accident). He remarried and had another daughter. Throughout it all, Rhodes wrote because he had to; he wrote for sanity and for personal salvation, and because even if he never published again, he was a writer.
Then, like in a fairy tale or a myth, Rhodes was rediscovered. A student writer, Phil Christman, was reading John Gardner's On Becoming a Novelist. Gardner singled out Rock Island Line for praise; Christman then went in search of the out-of-print novel, finally tracking down a library copy. Then Christman badgered his friend Ben Barnhart until Barnhart read Rock Island Line.
Barnhart and Christman didn't know what had happened to Rhodes, whether he was still writing at all, or if he would welcome the contact. When Rhodes finally heard from his literary agent (for the first time in thirty years) he almost didn't get her email because it had gone to his spam folder.
As it turned out, Rhodes had never stopped writing, and he had another novel, Driftless, waiting when Ben Barnhart caught up with him. Barnhart found a man who, despite what accident and fate had wrought in his life, was not bitter. Rhodes had been steadily working all along: I cannot think of a better example of faith and grace.
For an excellent profile of David Rhodes from Poets & Writers Magazine:
"After the Flood: A Profile of David Rhodes" by Kevin Larimer
And here is an interview on Booklist Online:
"At Length with David Rhodes" by Donna Seaman