I don’t suppose I would have come across this book, had it not been for my son, who sent it to me as a birthday gift. It’s called Driftless (the name derives from a peculiar geological area in southwestern Wisconsin which, eons ago, was spared the “drift” of the receding glaciers) and it’s written by David Rhodes. The author started out on what promised to be a notable career in fiction in the early seventies, but was halted in his tracks by a motorcycle accident that left him paralyzed. Driftless is his long-delayed return. Those who follow “The Buddha Diaries” will know that I have a special interest in, and fondness for creative people who have been sidelined in any way, and this writer certainly appears to fall into that category—though I have no idea as to why he chose to remain silent for so long.
In any event, this is a remarkable book. I love the way each of its many short-ish chapters has its own title, and could be read, almost, as a story in itself. Together, though, they follow several narrative threads, interwoven in the same odd ways as the lives of the characters. There’s the farmer and his wife who realize they’re being stiffed by the corporate milk company; the country singer who slowly finds her voice; the heart-sick repairman who can’t get beyond his mourning for his lost wife; the local pastor, a woman unable to let go of her childhood wounds; a wheel-chair bound spinster who squanders her life savings (and her sister’s) at the casino and rediscovers life at a local dogfight; a militia training for the overthrow of the government… And a wild creature, a black puma long absent from this area, stalks the pages like some wild, animating spirit reminding us of a time when nature was as yet untamed by man.
There are other threads. The setting, a small village whose very existence is threatened by the march of twenty-first century “progress,” is rich in natural beauty, poor in material wealth. Rhodes is at his lyrical best in evoking the landscape and its changes with the passage of the seasons, and in describing the symbiotic relationship between the land and those who live on it. His people are scarred, their hands gnarled by decades of hard labor, their faces marked by age and care. They are real in the same way that the trees are real, and the barns and silos of the farmyards, the jalopies and the trucks they drive. They need love and attention, don’t know how ask for it, suffer stubbornly and, sometimes, die.
I like writing that is straightforward, honest, un-literary, and at the same time rich in associative and evocative depths. I do not want to be impressed by the writing, so much as by the authenticity of where it comes from. Driftless , it seems to me, comes from a place of long experience and deep compassion, a place where suffering is understood to be both hard and real—and the threshold that leads to a more profound experience of life. The center of gravity of the book lies in the integrity of its central characters in the face of physical and emotional hardship. Their relationships, shifting nervously between suspicion and trust, generosity and self-protection, are deeply human. They invite us to laugh at them—and with them—to pity them, to “feel their pain” as well as their occasional rapture, and accept them for who they are.
There is also a broader context here, in which nature plays a significant role. It is, as the pastor discovers at a moment of revelation described with wry humor and compassion, both: that sense of Oneness that embraces everything. Call it--as she does, transcending the limited vocabulary of her Christian calling--love, a word that carries a good deal more freight than its deceptive single syllable. And this, perhaps, along with that wild black puma that stalks the human heart as it does the driftless landscape, is the animating spirit of the book.