Drawing Detroit

Criticism has not yet caught up with Brad Leithauser. At age fifty-six, he has published five volumes of accomplished verse; a long poem, Darlington’s Fall, which he calls a “novel in verse” and which is his most distinctive, indeed dazzling, work; and six novels, of which the newest represents a peak achievement. In addition to books of light verse, illustrated by his brother Mark, and a miscellany of prose pieces, he has made regular appearances as a critic over the past few decades, mainly in the New York Review of Books. His subjects there and elsewhere have ranged from poets such as Coleridge, Hopkins, Edward Lear, Louis MacNeice, Theodore Roethke, Anthony Hecht, and Richard Wilbur to major figures from the realm of American popular song: Lorenz Hart, Irving Berlin, and others. If ever there was one, Leithauser is a triple-threat man as novelist, poet, and critic; yet the richness—sometimes one is tempted to call it sheer genius—of his work has not found a large, responsive audience, while reviews of his books, at least in the New York Times Book Review, have been mixed.

His first published book of poems, Hundreds of Fireflies, contained an attractive mixture of formal expertise in rhyme and stanza with personal biography—being a tennis instructor one summer, or working for a law firm in New York City. His penchant for syllabic verse, noticed especially in Cats of the Temple, his second book of poems, had something to do with his being classified in the 1980s and beyond as one of the New Formalists, a group of writers determined to strike back against the tide of often shapeless free verse. In point of fact, although there’s no denying Leithauser’s technical and musical skills or his keen eye for animal, vegetable, and mineral natures, his best poems have been about other people, imagined or real, with a special interest in family—close and not so close to home. This distinguishes him from Marianne Moore, a poet with whom he has been compared, since his narrative-driven poems about people are quite unlike anything Moore was interested in doing. In particular, “A Peopled Landscape,” a section from his third book of poems, The Mail from Anywhere, and the lovely “A Science Fiction Writer of the Fifties,” from his most recent one, Curves and Angles, demonstrate how curious and inventive he can be about individual human histories and careers.

Which is of course what his novels, not surprisingly, are about. Of the five that precede the new one, I would single out Hence and A Few Corrections as especially attractive in their humorous and serious presentation of character: the young chess wizard in Hence, up against the M.I.T. computer; the anonymous narrator of A Few Corrections interviewing disparate family members so he can get the facts right about his father. One should also mention what is probably his least-read novel, The Friends of Freeland, an extremely entertaining chronicle of goings-on in an imagined country that resembles Iceland—one of the much-traveled Leithauser’s favorite haunts.

But the most fully rendered “place” in Leithauser’s writing is surely the Detroit of his new book, a novel he seems to have been working toward writing since his career began. The Art Student’s War features the city where he was born, which still has a piece of his heart. It is
wartime, the summer of 1943, and in the very first chapter the student of the title, a young woman named Bianca Paradiso, encounters a wounded soldier riding a bus, who, at his stop, salutes her with “Nice ridin’ with ya, miss.” From here up through the final pages when Bianca is married and awaiting her third child, the novel is packed with loving and delicate observation. It is very much a family novel, showing Bianca in her relation to mother, father, brother, sister, uncle, and aunt. The individual family members are fully and vividly portrayed, as are the young men Bianca engages with, along with a myriad of other figures who briefly or more continuously make up her life’s scene. It is also a novel almost completely devoid of satire. Leithauser would probably agree with John Updike, who, when asked whether he wasn’t too “easy” on his characters, replied that since they sprang from his committed affection, why should he take them to pieces?

Bianca Paradiso is invited by her drawing teacher to aid the war effort by going to one of Detroit’s hospitals and making portraits of wounded servicemen. Her first encounter is with a boy whose face has been partly shot off, and she realizes that her mission as an artist is to “give them back their carefree boyish prewar faces.” Later she meets and draws a young man, Henry Vanden Akker, who becomes her first lover and who then returns to the war and is killed. Bianca’s other boyfriend is Ronny Olsson, a gifted fellow student and practiced ironist whose parents are rich, and from whose mother Bianca learns important things about herself. Perhaps the most consistently engaging character is her uncle, Dennis Poppleton, a doctor who not only rescues her from a life-threatening fever, but is generally a source of humorous wisdom—a lifesaver. (In his fondness for reading science fiction he recalls the hero of Leithauser’s previously mentioned poem “A Science Fiction Writer of the Fifties.”)

But, as stated earlier, the chief character is wartime Detroit and its industrial heart, where

the smokestacks outside were belching round the clock, and whether you actually saw the smoke or not, every Detroiter—man, woman, and child—took it right into their lungs: with every inhalation you breathed the War. It was stamped on your milk bottles; it trimmed your clothes of extraneous material; it lay in the dust of a streetcar floor.

The parks and streets of wartime and postwar Detroit are visited and explored with comparable particularity, for this is a novel that works, and works marvelously, through its accumulated detail—through the names, places, and “feel” of affectionate remembrance. Among things remembered are popular songs like “I Don’t Want to Walk without You,” “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” and “Skylark,” and the unique-sounding dishes served up by Bianca’s hard-pressed mother, dishes like “Shipwreck,” “Sammy’s Sloppy Joes,” “City Chicken Sticks,” and “Drowned Tuna Loaf,” that make us wonder what on earth such concoctions involved.

Leithauser’s prose is even-tempered, with no purple passages (except when Bianca falls seriously ill) and seldom builds up to dramatic plunges into danger. I can imagine someone objecting that the novel goes on too long, too evenly, without sufficient dramatic change and redefinition of its characters. That this is not the case is for me a matter of Leithauser’s enveloping confidence and belief in the worthwhileness of what he’s doing. “Isn’t it wonderful!” exclaims Bianca almost at the novel’s end, when she and Ronny Olsson encounter a fellow student from their drawing class of the previous decade. In most novels, such an exclamation would be a signal for ironic reflection on the part of narrator and reader. Not here, where most things are, eventually, truly to be wondered at. Reading The Art Student’s War, I was reminded of a portentous declaration by Henry James: “I have the imagination of disaster,” he announced in a letter to A. C. Benson. In his published books to date, and most beautifully in this new novel, Brad Leithauser shows himself to have the imagination of something more buoyant, less grim—maybe something like the possibility of happiness, in all its threatened, embattled nature.

Published in the 2010-06-04 issue: 
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William H. Pritchard, a frequent contributor, is the Henry Clay Folger Professor of English, Emeritus, at Amherst College.

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