Caught in the Driftless
In southwestern Wisconsin there is an area roughly one hundred and sixty miles long and seventy miles wide with unique features. Its rugged terrain differs from the rest of the state. The last of the Pleistocene glaciers did not trample through this area, and the glacial deposits of rock, clay, sand, and silt – called drift – are missing. Hence its name, the Driftless Region. Singularly unrefined, it endured in its hilly, primitive form, untouched by the shaping hands of those cold giants.
– David Rhodes, Driftless
Purely by coincidence, the years 2007 and 2008 brought a pair of sympathetic and accomplished books inspired by the Driftless region. The photographer Danny Wilcox Frazier’s book Driftless: Photographs from Iowa came first, and was recognized with the Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography from Duke University, and is available from Duke University Press. The following year brought the first book in more than thirty years from the novelist David Rhodes. Also entitled Driftless, it was awarded the Milkweed National Fiction Prize and is available from Milkweed Editions. Rhodes limits his description of the region to southwestern Wisconsin, though it technically runs through parts of southeastern Minnesota, northern Iowa and northwest Illinois. Taken separately, as they were originally intended, each book startles with the degree of particular detail it contains, a set of gifts to rich they practically cry out for repeated viewings or readings. Taken together, it’s easy and perhaps natural to imagine one further illuminating the other, for the snowbound subjects of Frazier’s photos to stand in, however briefly, for Grahm and Cora Shotwell in Rhodes’s Driftless, chasing through the snow in search of their missing children, or for Rhodes’s July Mongtomery to add texture to one of Frazier’s sunburnt farmers. The Amish family Frazier photographed from the back glass of a passing car, walking single-file along the edge of a dirt road, might easily be Eli Yoder’s large, solemn brood, living in defiance of the times in Rhodes’s fictional Words, Wisconsin.
Danny Wilcox Frazier, the photographer Robert Frank observes in his Foreword, “makes me think that this ‘BOY’ has never gone away from home. Years of working, walking, photographing, carefully making notes, names, places.” This is not to suggest that Frazier’s first book is a collection of portraits of local people, or a catalogue of local landmarks. A great many of the photos here are the product of a sharp eye, honed to respond at an instant, whether from an unobtrusive spot at the margins or the midst of the action. A series of images from Jumping Rock, “a notorious party spot along the Iowa River”, thrive on unexpected angles. Frazier shows us a naked man, shot close-up, at waist level, apparently running forward, and a two-page spread of a diver, taken from above, an instant before he enters the water, which reaches far out in front of him in broad, gentle waves. Another features a cocky-looking young man with a cigarette between his lips, passing a can of Budweiser to Frazier’s disembodied hand, reaching into the frame from behind the camera. They’re unglamorous images, in that the locale is far from exotic and many of the bodies featured appear to be a sickly pale shade, yet Frazier captures a vitality, an unselfconscious joy in those moments.
He features migrant workers as well, picking vegetables in one remarkable shot taken between the leaves of a plant, throwing a cantaloupe across the open field in another and standing at the edge of a large wagon, piled high with watermelons in a third. There are hunters and fishermen, a woman giving birth, Veterans marching on Memorial Day and scenes from an Amish wedding.
Frazier knows the region, the texture of daily life there, and recognizes the poetry of small, particular moments, whether peaceful, violent, joyous, or one in an endless string of small challenges. Frazier’s Driftless is a remarkable document, a record of a region he knows intimately and loves, in all weathers and lights. He does so in black and white, and never with more than two images to a single page, a decision which respects the level of detail in Frazier’s work. In a number of cases, he opts to feature a single image as a two-page spread. It’s a daring choice – several of the images look almost grainy at that size – but a rewarding one, in that it heightens the intensity of Frazier’s photos. A number of pages appear almost wholly saturated in black, throwing the lighter portions of the shots into sharper relief and creating drama and tension which otherwise would have been lacking. Driftless is a fine and authoritative beginning to Frazier’s career as a photographer, and he has already proven it was no fluke with his recent work on Detroit.
David Rhodes, on the other hand, turned to the Driftless in the process of restarting a long-stalled career. This was no simple case of writer’s block, or a long period of discouragement after producing poorly-received work. Between 1972 and 1975, Rhodes wrote three acclaimed novels, The Last Fair Deal Going Down, Easter House, and Rock Island Line. He wasn’t yet thirty when the novelist John Gardner praised him, and his work was compared to Sherwood Anderson’s. His first wife was pregnant around that time as well. He was, it must be said simply, enjoying a great run of successes. But in 1977, a motorcycle accident changed the course of his life. He came away with a broken back, and was paralyzed from the waist down. His marriage suffered, and ultimately failed. Rhodes bears no ill will toward his ex-wife for the outcome, he told Catholic magazine: “She married me as a whole person. But after the accident I was literally a shell of myself, and she made the right decision, did the right thing in getting away from me.” Writing presented its own set of problems, an experience Rhodes has confronted and made sense of in the years since. “I think serious physical injuries necessarily involve a hornet’s nest of psychological problems,” he’s said, “and at least for me it was hard to begin again where I’d left off.” With Driftless, he undeniably found his way back.
The book works the slippery ground between novel and linked stories. It’s probably closer to a novel, since the individual “stories”, despite having titles, tend to work more as chapters than discrete narratives. In truth, labeling it in these terms is unimportant. It’s more revealing to say that Driftless is a warm and largehearted book. Rhodes succeeds in the quiet, masterly way of writers like Richard Ford, weaving a powerful spell from the most ordinary stuff. He is patient, he plays his cards in their own time. The view Rhodes offers of Words, Wisconsin is panoramic, encompassing everything from Grahm and Cora Shotwell’s many, bewildering hardships, to the spiritual progress of Pastor Winnie Smith and the unexpected love that comes to Olivia Brasso. Rhodes builds all these figures and their journeys organically, though he does also have a knack for keeping the reader off balance, as when he surveys the audience at American Milk’s annual meeting: “Mostly old and middle-aged adults, dressed as though they were expecting to meet Dolly Parton, sat in groups of ten and twelve around circular cloth-covered tables.” He also evokes the region’s weather in stark particulars: “During the night, temperatures plunged to minus twenty and the air turned outer-space sterile, without a trace of color or smell.” And he is exceptional in writing about the aftermath of loss, as here, when Jacob Helm looks at pictures of his late wife:
Through her picture, he acknowledged that his present experiences were no longer fully endowed. His goals no longer called to him so loudly, and the sequenced paths leading to them were not nearly as well lit. He once knew how to move through the forest of mornings, afternoons, and evenings, following the trail of his desires without hesitating or looking up, the field upon which his expectations unfurled as clear as an unbroken sky. Now, he shared no mystery with anyone and the adventure had become a job.
The outline of Angela’s ankle above a brown oxford reminded Jacob that time itself had passed differently six years ago. Each minute had contained the possibility that an invisible door would soon open and Unmediated Truth stare back at them. Fully exposed, the gates of perfect understanding would open and he and Angela would fold into each other with a surrendered whimper.
Rhodes also lingers with his old friend July Montgomery, who has been with him since Rock Island Line, though in Driftless we encounter him for perhaps the final time. Despite having just made his acquaintance, I can say with confidence that it’s a loss to literature. But with or without him, Rhodes offers much to the reader – cause for laughter, reason to pause and reflect. There is an oddly touching moment in the novel when someone suggests that Rusty Smith should put his ill, aged pit bull to sleep, and Rusty asks, in earnest, “What kind of way to die is that?” Later, Winnie Smith, the pastor of Words Friends of Jesus Church, admits that she loves the Greeks, pagans though they were, because, “They understood how full of wonder life is.” As a young writer, David Rhodes was compared to Sherwood Anderson. No doubt Anderson would be at home with the proceedings in Rhodes’s comeback effort. Indeed there is a definite echo of Winesburg at times. But Driftless is ultimately David Rhodes’s show, a book of earthy, human wonders. It is a gratifying return from a writer still young enough that not only have we not seen the last (a new novel, a follow-up to Driftless entitled Jewelweed, is out this month), we may even not have seen his best yet.
– John McIntyre