Looking for Purity in Detroit

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Brad Leithauser’s mother-in-law, Lormina Paradise, sketching a hospitalized American soldier just after World War II; this photograph and some of her drawings appear as illustrations in Leithauser’s new novel, The Art Student’s War

The Art Student’s War, Brad Leithauser’s new novel, is a loving, elegiac caress of a city used to rougher treatment: Detroit, where he grew up. But this is not the already rusting city that Leithauser knew as a child; it is his parents’ Detroit, active, essential, and alive, its factories going twenty-four hours a day, turning out the tanks and jeeps needed by America’s boys overseas.

This is Leithauser’s seventh novel. He is also the author of five collections of poetry. Leithauser’s literary curiosity and skill allow him to roam freely across borders of poetry and prose. But even within the landscape of the novel, this playful, erudite, and emotional writer travels lightly and far and never in quite the direction one would have predicted. A Few Corrections (2001), for example, his novel about a son trying to understand his late father, is a touching, exuberant, multigenerational epic masquerading as a tight, short volume, neatly arranged around corrections to an obituary. The Friends of Freeland (1997), on the other hand, is a darkly comic, sprawling invention, a scathing satire of a place that does not exist—the windy, wintry northern isle of Freeland, complete with its ancient sagas and modern culture wars.

And then there is Darlington’s Fall (2002). It was another poet, Randall Jarrell (who also wrote a novel, the exquisite, unerring comedy of academic manners Pictures from an Institution), who famously said that a novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it. (Jarrell’s novel, perhaps the funniest book I have ever read, had no plot.) With Darlington’s Fall, Leithauser has proved Jarrell partly wrong, for his novel is written entirely in verse. And verse or no verse, a novel it surely is. The story of Russell Darlington, a boy who grows up to be a passionate and eminent entomologist, Darlington’s Fall is so beautiful and so suspenseful that the reader is breathless both with the headlong narrative excitement of a novel and, simultaneously, with poetry’s call to stop—to repeat, reread, recite.

None of these vigorously composed novels would have predicted the next, and none, certainly, would have predicted The Art Student’s War. Throughout the books, however, runs a persistent, underlying, unobtrusive, and beautifully balanced formality. And Leithauser’s own sense of these works as a continuum is clear: each book contains, as an epigraph, a quotation from his own previous novel. Finally, there is Leithauser’s preoccupation and fascination with the past—how it lives and how it dies—which shows up, as real as any character, in his rain forests, arctic snows, and midwestern suburbs. The Art Student’s War, though utterly different in timbre, rhythm, and key from his earlier prose, is …

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