- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 7, 2002

By Brad Leithauser
Knopf, $25, 311 pages

Right up front of Brad Leithauser's "Darlington's Fall," it is announced that this is a novel in verse a confession that strikes dread into the heart of lovers of continuous prose fiction; indeed, to those with some schooling in literary genres it sounds ominously like an epic hiding its portentousness beneath the spandex of a more elastic and definitely sexier form.
And there is a theme worthy of an epic here, a theme no less than Nature itself, a matter of fascination to Russel Darlington. His first name recalls that of Alfred Russel Wallace while Darlington is close enough to Darwin. If he is not exactly named after these luminaries, then, it is suggested, he is not quite a biologist of their stature. Nevertheless, few can have been more taken with the delights and mysteries of the natural world.
From the day in 1898 when 10-year-old Russ catches a large and beautiful butterfly, the first of its kind ever found in Indiana, his fate is sealed. In his own flesh he is thus destined to experience that "butterfly effect" so dear to chaos mathematicians: For Russ "momentous unreckonable / Consequences spin off from the tiniest motion /And flap of papery wings".
The first of these consequences is that the precocious boy steps on the fast track to the entomology department of the local university, eventually becoming a renowned lepidopterist. The wing-flap that took him to the laboratory next spirits him to the jungles of a Micronesian island to collect butterflies. But in the chancy way of life, an accident while scaling a mountain prevents him ever alighting on the pinnacle of his profession: the discovery of a new species. Instead, he must settle into the scholarly jog trot of his Midwestern university.
Nearly 100 years later, our narrator belatedly revealing himself as Russ' great-great nephew follows him to Micronesia, seeking traces of that earlier expedition. None remain, of course, though the flap of papery wings that wafted two men to the Pacific has led, among much else, to university buildings whose murals illustrate "the unity of Art and Scientific Truth," and, years later, to this very novel in verse, "Darlington's Fall."
It's intriguing and a joy to read. Short for a novel a mere 46,265 words according to its author's computer it's also fast-paced. Russ and other characters his father John, his mentor Professor Schrock, and his wives are sketched with the quickest of strokes, yet their motives are always clear and they never lack that solid milieu so essential to a novel.
Mr. Leithauser lavishes information about insects and butterflies, about prehistoric animals and tropical jungles, about 19th-century science and early-20th-century America. Facts thus stud the pages like jewels, fascinating things to get your hands on, but challenging too. Is there not something malign in the habits of living things, for example, "the tidy fox, /Licking clean the bowl of an egg" or the insects that lay eggs on a living host which will be eaten alive as the larvae hatch?
Faced with personal loss and expert in the secret lives of the nature's creatures, Russ intuits that "As you close in on Nature, you close / On something far worse than indifference: Pure evil." He shares the post-Darwinian vision of "a ship with no one at the wheel: The earth as a vessel sailing the centuries / Without a piloting hand (while, deep in the hold, / Its cargo multiplies, modifies, undergoes / Transmogrifications)."
Such visions and Mr. Leithauser offers many more views of the harsh truth of nature do not slot neatly into a prose novel, at least not one whose theme necessitates that its earnest and kindly central character must himself be a victim of nature's thriftlessness. Such a literary donne demands a know-it-all narrator. Mr. Leithauser arms him with masses of contemporary knowledge and theories then sits him on Russ' shoulder, where he does double duty as both a sympathetic recorder and an ironic commentator on life as we do not usually care to know it.
Verse serves this narrator well. He aims, he says, for "the skink's skittery celerity", and Mr. Leithauser's muscular 10-line stanzas give him just what he needs as they move him swiftly from the peaks of narratorial distance to the deprecatory vernacular, whirling down exhilarating slides from level to level and into mouth-watering lists of oddly named and multifarious creatures.
Inevitably, verse trails clouds of literary glory, demanding attention to its language and subject and insisting with a firm chest-poking finger that poetry is a way of apprehending life: "For each of my triad in his way (the lepidopterist / Tunneling ever deeper down a microscope, / The poet probing a stranger's psyche, the muralist / Rekindling pure daybreaks along prehistoric shores ) / Pursues an abstruse problem. Each seeks to say, /To a world rushing all the other way, / Stop. Remark this. Here are life-forms distant from yours."
This novel also demands remark. Here is a literary form verse narrative not much used since the 19th century. If we had assumed it to be extinct, Mr. Leithauser suggests that it might be perfectly adapted to a niche we have neglected to explore.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide