After a year and a half, Rhodes quit school and moved with his girlfriend to Philadelphia, where he worked at a factory mixing chemicals, some of which ended up in hospitals in Vietnam. (Rhodes had been a registered conscientious objector since he was eighteen; years later, when he was called up for a physical, a doctor declared him unfit for service due to anxiety, though Rhodes believes he just took one look at him and determined he wasn't cut out for it: "He talked to me and he said, ‘Why are you so nervous?' And I said, ‘I'm not nervous.' And he said, ‘You seem awfully nervous,' and I said, ‘I'm not nervous,' and he said, ‘Well, I'm sorry but we're going to find you unfit for military service.' And I said, ‘Well, that's okay with me.' So that was the end of that.") City life was exciting—Rhodes recalls frequenting bars in which men carried guns and there were bullet holes in the walls—but he quickly realized it wasn't for him. "I would get up in the morning and I would go outside and I would think, ‘I'm living here—what am I doing here?'" So he left his girlfriend, moved to Vermont, and attended Marlboro College, where he majored in contemporary literature, reading 150 books, by his count, during his last year there. It was 1969. He was twenty-three years old and he had already met the woman who would become his first wife and started to write the manuscript that would become his first novel. He completed forty pages or so, sent it to the Writers' Workshop, and was accepted. Back in Des Moines, his mother, having been diagnosed with cancer years earlier, died at the age of fifty-two.
Rhodes is indifferent about the business of publishing, immune to the imperative of making his work known, downright shy of the limelight. But the act of writing...well, that's a different story.
"She was the center. My mother was the intellectual and the emotional center of that home," Rhodes says. "It's always traumatic to lose your mother. It was a formative event because it happened at a period in my life when I was just graduating from college, and it helped to collect me, I guess. I was very rebellious when I was younger—it was a source of much anguish for her—and when she died it seemed like, ‘Well, maybe I don't need to do that anymore.' My mother presented a good force to push against. And without the force there, it was like, ‘Okay, that's enough of that.'"
Still grieving for his mother, Rhodes went to graduate school. The Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1969 was much like it is today: Priority is placed on time to write and to socialize with other writers. Students tend to spend their days creating art and their nights establishing connections in support and service of that art. Rhodes did the former, but not the latter. He spent his time in Iowa City writing the rest of The Last Fair Deal Going Down and working nights at the Oakdale Alcoholic Center (where the late Richard Yates, who taught at the Workshop in the sixties and early seventies, sought treatment). He rarely mingled with the other writers.
"I didn't understand what I was supposed to be doing there," Rhodes says. "I can see now that what I should have been doing is making contacts and meeting people, and I didn't do any of that. I went there and I found an abandoned farmhouse and I put a roof on it and I thought, ‘Wow, now I can write.' There were classes like once a month that you could go to, and I went to those and I never saw anybody. I went to the other English classes too, but basically I just wrote. I thought, ‘This is the time to write,' and that's what I did, so when I came out of there I knew a couple people, but most of them I'd never met."
He did make at least one connection at Iowa. Joe Kanon, a young editor from Atlantic-Little, Brown (who years later would become executive vice president of Houghton Mifflin), was visiting the campus scouting for new talent. He asked Rhodes what he was working on and, upon hearing the premise of the novel—a tale of two cities: Des Moines, home to the Sledge family, a seedy lot of characters fathered by a railroader who drinks himself to death on a dare; and a metaphorical "City" built by religious fanatics at the bottom of a gigantic hole in the ground and teeming with cannibalistic heroin addicts too paralyzed by religious guilt to escape—he told Rhodes to send him the manuscript. He did, and Kanon bought it. Rhodes hadn't yet received his MFA, had never received a rejection—had never even submitted his work—and he had a book deal with a major East Coast publisher. He received a two-thousand-dollar advance, which Rhodes figured he could live on for twelve months or more.
After graduation, Rhodes stayed in Iowa for another year, got married, finished his second novel, and started writing his third. In late 1972 he moved to Wonewoc. He had a master's degree, he was a published author, his future was bright. He was twenty-six years old, and he drove a fast motorcycle.