Brief Reviews


Robert Frost
by Jeffrey Meyers.
Houghton Mifflin/Peter Davison,
424 pages, $30.00.

Frost was in his sixties and widely regarded as the finest American poet of his time when he appointed Lawrance Thompson his official biographer. This was in 1939, and for more than twenty years Thompson tagged after his peripatetic and seemingly indestructible subject, becoming, in his own opinion, a semi-slave to Frost. He came to hate his master. The eventual biography, which Thompson did not live to complete, represented Frost as a self-promoting egomaniac, a psychological sadist, a monster. It omitted Frost's long love affair with Kay Morrison, who, as the poet's major heir, had a whip hand over any biographer. It omitted a great deal, in fact--including at least half of Frost. Mr. Meyers's widely researched, briskly written, and altogether admirable biography corrects that distorted portrait. The author provides new facts, useful sketches of the many people Frost dealt with, a sympathetic but not idolatrous view of Frost's character and actions, and an astute if sometimes overanalytical interpretation of his poetry. (Mr. Meyers can see a derivation anywhere, and likes them all.) Frost was neither saint nor villain nor rustic sage--merely a poet who, in President John F. Kennedy's words, "brought an unsparing instinct for reality to bear on the platitudes and pieties of society," and, miraculously, persuaded society to love it. Mr. Meyers's biography is a fine corrective both to Thompson's spite and to a certain amount of sentimental guff from other sources.

Sandra Nichols
Found Dead

by George V. Higgins.
Holt/John Macrae, 241 pages,

Jerry Kennedy, Mr. Higgins's rasp-tongued criminal-defense lawyer, reappears to good effect in a novel that does not involve his specialty. The dispute is over that standard New England matter--inherited money. The interest of the tale lies in the characters, who, like all the author's people, talk amusingly and at length in what amount to set pieces on foolish laws, spoiled rich brats, press irresponsibility, and their own seedy histories. There is a fine section on how to entice an impatient millionaire into an extravagant deal, and a sickeningly graphic description of what the police encounter in extracting a long-dead body from a bog. Through all this lively, acid eloquence the reader comes to realize that Jerry has been assigned to help the police and the court, normally his enemies, arrange a bit of legal blackmail. The ironic alliance makes for intriguing reading.

False Impressions:
The Hunt for Big-Time
Art Fakes

by Thomas Hoving.
Simon & Schuster, 366 pages,
BuyFalse Impressions:
The Hunt for Big-Time
Art Fakes

Mr. Hoving, formerly the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, writes entertainingly about art fakes, which, he declares, are as old as humanity. Both museum curators, who presumably should know better, and private collectors have been soundly stung, and "Three words tell the whole story: need, speed, and greed." Mr. Hoving, who admits to having been stung himself on occasion, tells alarming and sometimes absurd stories of such enormous frauds as the Metropolitan's Etruscan warrior. He offers some advice on detecting frauds--which is not likely to help an amateur enthusiast--and a warning that "the art world we are living in today is a new, highly active, unprincipled one of art fakery." It seems that the only safe purchase is a contemporary piece straight from the hands of a living artist. Mr. Hoving has no examples of an artist's faking himself.

Speak Low (When You Speak Love):
The Letters of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya

edited and translated by
Lys Symonette and Kim H. Kowalke.
University of California, 632 pages,
BuySpeak Low
(When You Speak Love)

Except at the start of their affair, when he became effusively emotional, Weill and Lenya did not write the kind of love letters that bore anyone but the lovers themselves. The composer and the singing actress were artistic partners, concerned with each other's work, with getting their property out of Hitler's Reich, and finally with establishing themselves in the United States--but the work always came first. The correspondence is gossipy and often maliciously clever about colleagues, exasperated about failed projects, and in Lenya's case highly informative about the miseries endured by a road company playing one-night stands in the sticks. Weill's letters cause one to marvel that any musical show ever reaches completion, what with dramatist, lyricist, and composer all angling for top billing and top money. Weill was, of course, soon successful here with shows like Lady in the Dark and One Touch of Venus. Lenya, dependent on spoken language, was not, but her letters make no complaint about the disparity in their positions. Both enjoyed love affairs during their periods of separation, and both took it calmly, Weill once writing to Lenya, "I believe we're the only married couple without problems." They seem to have been less a married couple than a professional couple, friends who valued each other's talents above any sexual adventures. As one works through their well-annotated correspondence, they become very likable people.

St. Burl's Obituary
by Daniel Akst.
MacMurray & Beck, 270 pages,
BuySt. Burl's Obituary

Mr. Akst's novel starts with a provocative problem: how does a spectacularly obese man disappear? Burleigh Bennett, an obituary writer for a New York newspaper, lumbers out for a late dinner at the restaurant he has inherited and walks into a gangland execution. Unfortunately, he gets a good face-to-face look at the hit man. It becomes advisable to vanish. His adventures on the run are grotesque, elaborately gastronomic, and ultimately disappointing--at least for the reader. After all the ingeniously contrived to-do, one expects something more than a picnic in a graveyard.

Bebop and Nothingness:
Jazz and Pop at the
End of the Century

by Francis Davis.
Simon & Schuster Macmillan/Schirmer,
315 pages, $25.00.

A number of the essays in this collection first appeared in The Atlantic.

The Atlantic Monthly; June 1996; Volume 277, No. 6; pages 125-126.

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