trade paperback, $16
Driftless is a beautiful hymn to community life. David Rhodes ended his novel Rock Island Line with July Montgomery, shattered by the random and senseless murder of his wife, turning from revenge, but not definitively headed for redemption.
July Montgomery reappears in Driftless as the moral center of the novel, a linchpin of sorts, but not the central character. In an interview with Donna Seaman on Booklist Online, David Rhodes said:
I wanted to write a love story, only with many different characters and many different kinds of love, and show in some small way how they all resolve these passions individually yet together. And what I discovered is that the real story of the individual me is intrinsically dark, but the story of us is joyous.Driftless is indeed a sunnier, more joyous novel than Rock Island Line. Driftless seems to arise from the geography of the Driftless region--a community of family farms and small-town denizens. The cast of characters the reader comes to know in Driftless is surprisingly large and varied: a farm couple who are fighting corporate corruption; a female pastor who has both romantic and spiritual epiphanies (not at the same time); a repair-shop owner who still grieves for the wife who died many years ago; two sisters--a caregiver and her wheelchair-bound charge; a charismatic singer from an all-woman band; a wannabe songwriter with a penchant for beer; an emotionally stunted aging farmer; members of the Amish community; a pit-bull warrior; a hot-headed gearhead on probation; members of the local militia group.
And they are all connected. Thirty years elapsed between the publication of Rock Island Line and the publication of Driftless. The later novel has a larger canvas, and perhaps a more mature vision. In his earlier novel, Rhodes focused on July Montgomery, with the surrounding characters filling a more peripheral role in the narrative. Driftless, set in the community of Words, Wisconsin, encompasses the inner lives of many characters. Animals play a part in the narrative, too. In Rock Island Line, July Montgomery's closest companion for much of the book is a cat named Butch. Driftless has cows, a roaming panther and her cub, several dogs (one scene is set at an illegal dogfight) and other animals both wild and domesticated. Work is important to the world of Words, too: characters milk cows, cultivate fields, restore and repair buildings, repair farm machinery, and work in a plastics factory. Here's a description of people gathered at The Horned Owl, the local bar:
They lived in trailers, rented or heavily mortgaged houses, and rooms above storefronts. They worked on construction crews, as field hands, janitors, clerks, part-time plumbers, unlicensed electricians, short-run truck drivers, house-cleaners, waitresses, secretaries, cooks, and gardeners. They found employment in factories, motels, lumberyards, garages, stockyards, packinghouses, breweries, grain elevators, and coal plants. They plowed snow, collected garbage, shoveled gravel, poured concrete, guided tourists, sold vegetables out of pickups, trained horses, made crafts, painted barns and houses, repaired automobiles, welded pipes, and fixed small engines.
They were connected to nature and routinely picked wild berries, hunted mushrooms and ginseng, gathered hickory nuts, dried herbs, canned meat, dug up endangered wildflowers, shot ducks, geese, grouse, rabbits, squirrels, turkeys, deer, coyotes, and bears. In some societies they might be called peasants, fellaheen, the rural poor, survivalists, bohemians, the underclass, proletariats, Bubbas, self-taught intellectuals, back-to-the-land socialists, right-wing gun nuts, rubes, and dumb-ordinary people--terms of derision that so accurately conveyed the horror their lifestyle instilled in the middle and upper classes. (125)
The characters in Driftless are at once profoundly independent and individualistic, and deeply connected and interdependent. Rhodes creates a narrative that is, like his characters, rooted in the land, dependent on community. This novel has story, narrative drive, and character. It is complex, yet told in a traditional manner, the storyteller's voice confident and vigorous. The writing is simply magnificent.
If you read my earlier review of Rock Island Line, you know how much I loved that novel. Driftless moved me as deeply, although it is a very different book. Few contemporary novels do so much so well. I recommend this novel to just about anyone: if you love good writing, if you like reading about the extraordinary lives of ordinary people, if you love a sweeping narrative that tells a compelling story, you will love this book. If you are drawn to the novels of John Steinbeck, or the stories of Annie Proulx, I think this book will appeal to you. David Rhodes has a powerful gift for story and a compelling knack for character--it's a pretty good combination.