Painting Beyond Walls

A Novel
“Rhodes is rhapsodic in his descriptions and compassionate and wise in this observations.”—BOOKLIST, STARRED REVIEW
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It is 2027. August Helm is thirty years old. A biochemist working in a lab at the University of Chicago, he is swept off his feet by the beautiful and entirely self-assured Amanda Clark. Animated by August’s consuming desire, their relationship quickly becomes intimate. But when he stumbles across a liaison between the director of his lab and a much younger student, his position is eliminated and his world upended.

August sets out to visit his parents in Words, an unincorporated village in the heart of Wisconsin’s Driftless Area. Here, he reconnects with several characters from his past: Ivan Bookchester, who now advocates for “new ways of living” in an age of decline; Hanh, formerly known as Jewelweed, who tends her orchard and wild ginseng, keenly attuned to new patterns of migration resulting from climate change and habitat destruction; and Lester Mortal, the aging veteran and fierce pacifist who long ago rescued her from Vietnam. Together, the old friends fall back into a familiar closeness.

But much as things initially seem unchanged in the Driftless, when August is hired to look after Tom and April Lux’s home in Forest Gate, he finds himself in the midst of an entirely different social set, made up of wealthy homeowners who are mostly resented by the poorer surrounding communities, and distanced in turn by their fear of the locals. August soon falls head over heels for April, and different versions of his self collide: one in which the past is still present in tensions and dreams, another in which he understands his desire as genetically determined and chemically induced, and then a vaguely hoped-for future with April. When Lester is diagnosed with liver cirrhosis, Ivan comes clean on a ghastly past episode, and April makes a shocking revelation, a series of events ensues that will change all involved forever.  

As approachable as it is profound in exploring the human condition and our shared need for community, this is a story for our times.

Publish Date
8.5 × 6.5 × 1.25 in
20 oz

David Rhodes

David Rhodes (1946-2022) is the author of Painting Beyond Walls. As a young man, he worked in fields, hospitals, and factories across Iowa.

Praise and Prizes

  • “An impressive and beautiful novel … Painting Beyond Walls joins Driftless and Jewelweed to shape the second half of an impressive career. Characters from his earlier novels appear prominently in this book, as does its setting, the Driftless Region of southwestern Wisconsin… . In his first book, The Last Fair Deal Going Down, Rhodes created a city beneath Des Moines, a sub-city. Before he enters it, the protagonist tells his sister, ‘I’ll write you a giant novel … a book that is the inside of me, a great, sprawling ironclad prodigy of emotion.’ David Rhodes, a Midwestern treasure, has now written six such novels.”

    Minneapolis Star Tribune
  • “Rhodes’ novels about the small, modest town of Words, Wisconsin, are in accord with the place-anchored, morally and spiritually inquisitive fiction of Kent Haruf and Marilynne Robinson even as this fourth installment, set in the very near future, takes a surprising turn… . Rhodes is rhapsodic in his descriptions and compassionate and wise in his observations, while his endearing, caring characters speak in peculiarly formal, even academic dialogue and the audacious plot veers into speculative territory and postulates … thought-provoking hope.”

    starred review
  • “David Rhodes, a Wisconsin resident, takes characters from his widely-praised novel Driftless and Jewelweed and imagines them into the future in Painting Beyond the Walls. In doing so, he reinvents the ‘Midwestern pastoral’ genre, confronting questions of science, technology, power, evolution and the effects of a rapidly changing society on a rural area.”

    Pioneer Press
  • “A thought-provoking meditation on human relationships at the cellular level as well as our relationship to Earth, the cosmos, and life itself… . Rhodes has a knack for writing acute psychological realism; these characters live and breathe, and by the time the novel ends we feel like we know them. Additionally, several story arcs reveal a humanistic, righteous indignation regarding the violence toward women so endemic to Western civilization, and characters frequently engage in thought-provoking discussions of everything from cellular science to sexual politics and world economies. The epilogue recalls Michel Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles, albeit much more optimistic. Although elements of the novel are adjacent to the near-future sci-fi writers like Kim Stanley Robinson, Rhodes is primarily concerned with the timeless human phenomena of love, loss, origins, family, and community.”

    Kirkus Reviews
  • “David Rhodes returns to the setting of Driftless and Jewelweed, as well as many of his fans’ favorite characters, in Painting Beyond Walls, his probing and moving sixth novel. Through his thirty-year-old hero, August Helm, Rhodes explores tension between economic classes, the tradeoffs of progress, love and sex … As August undergoes a series of awakenings, Rhodes deposits nuggets of wisdom about privilege, different models of love, and the complexity of humans.”

    Shelf Awareness, starred review
  • “One of the best eyes in recent fiction belongs to the novelist David Rhodes. Rhodes’ eye, like any fine novelist’s, is accurate both about literal detail and about metaphorical equivalencies. The most important point, however, is that nothing in Rhodes’ vision is secondhand.”

    John Gardner
    from On Becoming a Novelist
  • “‘A new, hitherto unknown novelist swam into my ken,’ Floyd Dell wrote in his autobiography more than forty years ago, about a time back further still when Sherwood Anderson pressed a manuscript into his hands. American readers can now enjoy a similar shock of recognition by picking up David Rhodes.”    

    New York Times Book Review
  • “In his new novel, David Rhodes returns to the Midwest with this tale set in the near-future about humanity’s relationship with each other, with nature, and with the self. Written in lyrical and melancholy prose, Rhodes once again proves why he is one of our best writers writing about our physical and metaphysical connection with each other and our environment.”

    Bennard Fajardo
    Politics & Prose Bookstore, Washington, DC
  • “David Rhodes’s prose is as captivating as ever in Painting Beyond Walls. Not only are his characters masterfully drawn, but the obvious joy of language is a thrill to read. His words are so easy to get lost in that there is almost a disconnect when closing the book—one needs a few seconds to reattune to reality after spending time in Rhodes’s world. It helps that his vision of the near future is extremely believable and though one doesn’t necessarily want to be going through some of what he puts his characters through, there is no doubt that his world-building is spectacular.”

    Jesse Hassinger
    Odyssey Bookshop, South Hadley, MA
  • “Gus is a young research scientist who was raised in the Driftless region of southwest Wisconsin and has spent ten years away in college and working for research labs in Chicago. In a short period of time, he finds out that his job is discontinued, his love relationship is over, and his lease is ending. With all of his possessions in the trunk of a rental car, he returns to Wisconsin in the hopes of planning a new future … He connects with old childhood friends and mentors, adapts a different philosophy, and then one day he discovers his perfect mate. But there’s a price to pay if they’ll be together, and you’ll never see it coming. A cast of memorable characters are presented at a pleasant pace, interspersed with extra details to keep you immersed in the numerous directions that the novel takes. It speaks to family, friendship, community, and an endearing description of what mature love relationships can be. Rhodes was diagnosed with stage-four cancer in the midst of writing this book. The extra time it took to write it, along with the quality of the prose, made for an intriguing and satisfying read. A master storyteller.”

    Todd Miller
    Arcadia Books, Spring Green, WI
  • “David Rhodes is a writer who has helped sustain the appeal of literary fiction due to his unique style and lyrical narration. His characters are so believable they become members of our own community; we share their hopes and fears, their pain, and their joy. His previous novels (at least five) revealed a gift for understanding human nature well beyond his years and this latest book set a few years into our future (2027) is sterling. If you’re a follower of Rhodes’ career, you’ll be delighted to know he has returned with a new story set in the Midwest. If you are not familiar with his work, this is a great way to get acquainted. You’ll be glad you did.”

    Linda Bond
    Auntie’s Bookstore, Spokane, WA
  • “A new novel by David Rhodes is a cause for celebration! … ­In Painting Beyond Walls, Rhodes deftly explores the importance of community and connectedness; the human condition, particularly the presence of evil in the world; and how wealth can be used to better the world. And, interestingly in this time when many deny the validity and importance of science in human life, he tackles that issue head on. It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that the problems our world currently faces, such as climate change and overpopulation, find remedy in the world of this book through science … the complex characters, beautiful descriptions and a view of the future will challenge your understanding of science and where we are headed as a species. And then, like me, you may want to reread Driftless and Jewelweed to be reminded of the backstory of Painting Beyond Walls. Welcome back, David Rhodes!”

    Sally Wizik Wills
    Beagle and Wolf Books & Binder, Park Rapids, MN
  • “David Rhodes has a beautiful, almost mesmerizing way with words. The story unfolds at a human pace; with characters that are complex and compelling. I don’t know if August got into my head or Rhodes put me into August’s head; either way, I felt at one with August as he navigated his way through romances and friendships and the inevitable changes that have come to the small rural hometown to which he’s returned after ten years in Chicago… . I’d gladly recommend this book to readers looking for immersive literary fiction! David Rhodes is a master storyteller.”

    Pat Rudebusch
    Orinda Books, Orinda, CA
  • “Terrific … Fans of Rhodes will appreciate the return to fictional Words, Wisconsin, and the familiar cast of characters that populate the unincorporated village. They’ll recognize Rhodes’ voice, as singular and lyrical as ever, and his distinct style; often waxing profound for page after luxurious page before suddenly punching out a hilarious one-liner. Rhodes continues to explore the human condition in profound but unpretentious ways.”

    Madison Magazine