Sunday, August 26, 2018

Rural Beauty

Driftless, a novel by David Rhodes


In its stall stands the 19th century,

its hide a hot shudder of satin,

head stony and willful, 

an eye brown as a river and watchful:

a sentry a long way ahead

of a hard, dirty army of hooves. 

-Ted Kooser-

For many years I spent my summers driving on the blue highway of rural America, sleeping in my bivy sack on the sides of dirt roads, eating in local diners, drinking Old Style and Hamms in downtown taverns.  Each July I'd pick a route that would take me through states I came to love--Wisconsin and Minnesota, Kansas and Nebraska, the Dakotas and Montana. I scrupulously avoided interstates and Holiday Inns; if I slept in a bed it was in the Downtown Motel for nineteen dollars a night.  I made a point of driving only a few hundred miles a day, thus leaving many hours to explore every local historical marker, every regional museum, and all of the "sights" suggested by the locals.  If it was America's Biggest, or Oldest, or most remote I would go out of my way to see it: the tallest man-made structure, the last outpost of the pony express, the Kansas Farm Museum, the birthplace of virtually every president.  I did this out of restlessness (since passed) and out of an abiding interest in the lives of my fellow Americans, most of whom live no where in particular--in small villages and dying towns, in farming communities like Wonewoc, Wisconsin, home of David Rhodes, the genius.

I was disheartened, to say the least, when I read Arlie Hochschild's Strangers in Their Own Land, a very sad book about Louisiana's Tea Party members, men and women filled with hatred for almost everything that feels worthwhile about this country.  My own experience of rural America--limited, of course, but compared to everyone but Charles Kuralt I've seen a fair piece of the country, the entire lower forty-eight, and the sad sacks Hochschild interviews--people who prefer cancer-producing toxic spills to government regulations--seem to me anomalous if not aberrant.  I made a point of having morning coffee in rural towns with the local farmers and (once in a while) their wives, and while I found them conservative compared to my urban neighbors, they were reasonable, thoughtful, and welcoming, truly the salt of the earth.

Rhodes, a prodigy who wrote three wonderful novels during the middle 1970's and then was silenced for three decades after a motorcycle accident, is a deeply compassionate chronicler of the lives of invisible people--farmers and small-town ministers and Amish families and housewives whose greatest concern might well be the state of their housekeeping on the eve of Mother's visit. That is to say, Rhodes writes about us, for this is who we really are, not gun-slinging heroes or angst-ridden intellectuals or cyborgs, we're ordinary folk, overwhelmed by the cost of living, the loss of love, our kids' future, the fear of dying.  It amazes me that Rhodes's critics fault him for the quiet dignity of his characters' lives. Quiet dignity is the entire point, and no one I've read, including Kent Haruf, Ivan Doig, and Richard Russo, does a better job of bringing to life the small town, the destitution (economic and spiritual)  of rural America imposed on us all by the coastal elites. 

Driftless, a novel I read with profound pleasure and admiration, is a richly imagined collection of short stories, of vignettes, linked by common characters and overlapping themes.  July Montgomery, a figure in nearly all of Rhodes's work, settles in Word, Wisconsin and takes up dairy farming after a long life on the road,  Over the course of twenty years he takes on a shamanistic character in the tiny farming town. Folks come to him not only to borrow tools but for his good sense and, as July himself puts it, his love for his neighbors.  There's a lonely widower, a mystical preacher, a young couple bent on justice, an Amish family and their extended clan, a wheel-chair bound young woman who finds love at a dog fight, a cranky retired farmer whose discovered capacity for fellow feeling is one of Rhodes's finest achievements.  Over the course of a year this endlessly interesting cast of characters lives through the kinds of changes that all of us live through.  We search for love and truth and justice; mostly we don't find them, but that doesn't deter us from searching.

Rhodes's style is lyrical, poetic, generous.  I read long passages aloud to my wife, sharing the beauty of language with her but also marveling at the cadences of Rhodes's description, the economy of his character sketches, the visual power of the landscape he describes.  Every set piece has a moment of reflection embedded in it; every character possesses a voice that is his or hers alone, an inner world brought to life with great economy.  You'll find yourself missing July's wisdom, Olive's impetuousness, Jacob's decency.  Not a book to be missed at a time when Americans have been polarized--for nefarious political purposes--into antagonistic tribes. Read Rhodes and discover once again our shared humanity.

 Driftless is published by Milkweed editions.

George Ovitt (8/26/2018)

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Ever-Present Fullness of All Treasured Life

Transit by Anna Seghers

Anna Seghers (1900-1983), born Netty Reiling, was a German-Jewish writer whose education in pre-Nazi Germany included studies in Chinese language and culture; German, French, and Russian Literature, as well as sociology and history. She completed her studies at the University of Heidelberg with a dissertation, Jude und Judentum im Werke Rembrandts, in which she examined the role of Jews in Rembrandt’s work. It is believed that she chose her penname, Anna Seghers, after the Dutch painter, Hercules Seghers, a contemporary of Rembrandt.

A lifelong reader, she was especially devoted to literature, to the works of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, Kleist, Büchner, and Kafka, Racine and Balzac, and lived her life with a special affection for fairy tales and Jewish and Christian legends, which often play a part in her fiction. 
After the burning of the Reichstag in February of 1933, she—a Jew and member of the Communist Party—was arrested then released, at which point she fled to Switzerland, before continuing on to France, to Paris, where she got involved with the anti-fascist coalition, Volksfront or Popular Front. Yet soon she was forced to flee again, as Hitler’s troops invaded and occupied France, first to the south, to Marseille, “the uterine center of the earth”, from where she and her family finally managed to escape the mounting horrors of Europe aboard a ship to Mexico, a voyage which included the passengers Victor Serge, André Breton, and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Such, at heart, is the story of her 1951 novel, Transit. In a description that surely captures her own perilous efforts to evade the steady advance of Hitler’s troops, she writes:

I watched them streaming into Marseille with their tattered banners representing all nations and faith, the advance guard of refugees. They had fled across all of Europe, but now, confronting the glimpses of blue water sparkling innocently between the houses, they were at their wits’ end. For the names of ships written in chalk didn’t mean that there really were ships but only a faint hope that there might be some—the names were constantly being wiped off because some strait was mined or a new coastal port had been fired on. Death was moving ever closer with his swastika banner as yet unscathed. 

Started after she found safety in Mexico, Transit takes “a sadder, longer view of her own experience,” writes Peter Conrad in his helpful introduction. “It observes events from what might be the vantage of the gods, looking down…on the spectacle of human folly, the delusion of human hope, and the alternation of anxiety and ennui that consumes our days.” Indeed, central to the overall force of the novel is the abiding impression that, for all of the apparent progress of the modern age, remarkably little has changed:

It was the age-old harbor gossip, as ancient as the Old Port itself and even older. Wonderful, an ancient harbor twaddle that’s existed as long as there’s been a Mediterranean Sea. Phoenician chit-chat, Cretan and Greek gossip, and that of the Romans. There was never a shortage of gossips who were anxious about their berths aboard a ship and about their money, or who were fleeing from all the real and imagined horrors of the world. Mothers who had lost their children, children who had lost their mothers. The remnants of crushed armies, escaped slaves human hordes who had been chased from all the countries of the earth, and having at last reached the sea, boarded ships in order to discover new lands from which they would again be driven; forever running from one death toward another.

Sengher’s recognition of this was by no means an apology for or capitulation to the apathy and fatalism of the age, let alone to Hitler and his kind. Rather (Why else would she write?), informing it all is the frank and finally hopeful recognition that, as Alan Watts puts it in his book, The Wisdom of Insecurity, “Poverty, disease, war, change, and death are nothing new. In the best of times 'security' has never been more than temporary and apparent". What matters is that we continue to live, to strive, moved—as by some mystery, some magic—by “the ever-present fullness of all treasured life”.

Peter Adam Nash