David Rhodes received an MFA in Writing from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop in 1971 and is the author of The Last Fair Deal Going Down, The Easter House, Rock Island Line, and Driftless.
"Rhodes proves that there is still vigorous life in the dark Gothic roots of great American novels.”
David Rhodes opens his first novel, The Last Fair Deal Going Down, by having its protagonist, Reuben Sledge, state that the book is a “chronicle of myself hidden in the grayness of a story of the people and the city itself.” The city in question is Des Moines, Iowa, and its people are as murderous, amorous, and plain as the citizens of any other. These traits are in no small part due to Reuben’s family moving to Des Moines — the Sledges are predisposed toward talents both utilitarian and chaotic. One brother is an incredible mechanic, another a Midwestern Don Juan.
I’m intrigued by the idea of cities, and have been ever since I was brave enough to live in one. A child of small-town Ohio, I’m more aware and used to nature than people. Living in a warren of them I got the feeling that a city is perhaps one of the most natural expressions of humanity we can create. They are created environments, organisms. Cities have spirits — the right ones do, anyway. Rhodes’ depiction of Des Moines is as a complex, preternatural city. There is a key idea here I’ll get to shortly.
I picked up David Rhodes’ The Last Fair Deal Going Down while on an ill-conceived excursion to San Francisco. I found the book at City Lights, was intrigued by the title — one of my favorite songs by Robert Johnson—and dug the Milkweed cover, which is a clear picture of heavy, dark mammatus, possibly over Iowa, but every bit as likely to be Nebraska. The back cover was a little vague, suggesting a very urban story, only slightly indicative of the supernatural. I quickly found the back cover to be, to put it mildly, inaccurate. Reuben’s opening statement is a much better précis. It’s an autobiography, a family history, a mystery, at times dry and others effulgent. There are cannibals. There’s a phantasmic horse. An involved diary of a stalker. Haunting the pages more than anything, though, is the “city within a city” which exists below Des Moines proper. It’s this city which exemplifies my feelings about the nature of cities, the how and why we build them.
Rhodes’ “lower city” comes as a complete surprise. The back cover does not do the idea of it justice. The reader quickly finds it is not metaphorical but literal, supernatural. It is a deep hole in the ground, streets leading into it as though it were only a warp in the cities fabric — a place of higher gravity. Covered in fog, no one has ever truly seen the city, and the people who enter it never return. Things are lost in the lower city. People, cars. The Sledges live with the hole beginning in their backyard and every so often they hear the sound of something opening in the fog. Discovering the city is part of the point of the book, and so I’ll only say a little more. What does it say about the people who built the place that it was necessary, that its pieces and parts were needed for its function? Who would build such a place? Cities are something like organisms, and that which does not make a city stronger is soon dissolved, eaten, and replaced. This lower city seems to be an organ designed to lure and contain the souls of the lost. Not to wax too poorly poetic about it.
The Last Fair Deal Going Down seems to contain as much of everything as Rhodes could fit. How he makes it work is a mystery to me — and perhaps he doesn’t. Perhaps I was just charmed. But the book is charming, very much so. This was Rhodes’ first novel, and for that you may find the spine of the book buckles, that whole sections could and should be cut. I loved every ludicrous moment. Every turn was unexpected, and the book itself seemed to be evolving as I read it, becoming what it needed to be — a story somehow independent of the need for a reader, simply needing to be told. And there’s a reason for that. I found the book to be a different beast from what I had bought according to the cover, and again different from what I had read in the beginning, and on and on until I reached the end, when the book took on a final shape, or perhaps its true shape was revealed.
Thinking back on it Rhodes had, for me, captured precisely what I look for in a city and in a book; a spirit. He created for Des Moines a spirit that runs through the pages, that captures everything, the life and death of its people, and that in a way understands its own creation, is reflexive. In my head, as twisted and tangled as the book itself is, I see it — the book, somehow — complementing the city in the same way the lower city does. These three things are inextricably linked, each of them necessary to the next, each horrible and beautiful, and both of those things because they were made by us, by Rhodes, by people. The city as humanity’s conception of nature.