Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Stories and Lines

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Stories and Lines

Article excerpt

DARLINGTON's FALL, BY BRAD LEITHAUSER, is one of the best novels I have read in years-rich in characterization, compelling in the shape and drive of its story, intellectually and verbally diverse.1 Part of its daring is that it relates the mostly sedentary life of a lepidopterist, risking comparison to Nabokov as well as the alienation of readers who seek more fashionable fare. The other part of its daring is that it is written in rhymed verse.

Separating narrative and verse elements of such a work in order to discuss them would fail to convey how well they mesh; the novel is a better novel because it is in stanzas, and the lines are more interesting than 99 per cent of American poetry because they are about the world instead of some poet's fuzzy navel. As an overview let me say that Leithauser's story, which covers a period from the late nineteenth century to the 1930s, with flashes of our own era in an authorial voice, will remind you at times of poets like E. A. Robinson and minds as diverse as Darwin's, Nabokov's and the late Stephen Jay Gould's. You will at times forget you are reading verse because Leithauser enjambs lines so often that the rhyme and meter are disguised, yet you will never entirely feel that you are reading prose because the story is so skillfully abetted by his ten-line stanzas. And at all the right moments in the tale the verse will come singing through and leave you moved or entertained in a rare manner. This is, in short, a brilliant work, certainly one of the finest things by a writer of my generation, and though I have little space I wish to convey its success as thoroughly as I can.

Darlington's Fall is either Leithauser's fifth book of verse or his sixth novel, depending on how you count. Though I have always admired his skill as a verse-maker, I have not always been taken with his poems, which at times seemed merely decorous. I also knew him as someone who had received his laurels in advance of his career, as it were, inspiring the jealousy of other poets. With his fourth book of poems, however, The Odd Last Thing She Did (1998), Leithauser seemed to me to have added muscularity to the intellectual shapeliness of his poems. The title narrative was especially fine, as were shorter poems like "Blessing for Malcolm Lowry." With this new book, he has applied a poet's precision to a novelist's skeptical compassion, and he has done so in a nearly seamless way.

The novel's protagonist, Russel Darlington, begins his life in a sort of Midwestern Eden, enraptured by nature and its "jewels." In a moment of secret realization these impressions connect him both to the actual jewels of his dead mother and to the grief of his father, the remarkable John Darlington. It is this father, a prominent citizen of their town, who supports Russel's early fascination with butterflies. Eventually he introduces the son to another of Leithauser's strong characters, Professor Schrock, a scarred and disappointed man who, despite his harshness, fosters intelligent life in the boy. Leithuaser follows a whole career in science, from the moment one can exclaim "O brave new world / That has such people in it!" to the more jaded response: "'Tis new to thee."

Questions arise about destiny and accident, the purposes of existence and the place of evil, and Leithauser dramatizes these questions not only in the nature Russel examines, but also in his own life. Among many good scenes in the book, Russel's courtship of his college sweetheart, a portrait of a nerd falling in love, is particularly well done:

Signals? So too was Pauline's hair's perfume,

And the perhaps subtly enhanced redness of her lips;

So too her eyelids' flutter and the upstart bloom

Of her breasts; so too the feel against his fingertips

Of her firm warm arm and her body's pledge of a shared

Internal heat all forms of speech, extended

Metaphors in some root-language which

Predated words. …

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