J U N E 1 9 9 6
by Phoebe-Lou Adams
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.
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.
The Hunt for Big-Time
by Thomas Hoving.
Simon & Schuster, 366 pages,
The Hunt for Big-Time
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.
(When You Speak Love):
The Letters of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya
edited and translated by
and Kim H. Kowalke.
University of California, 632 pages,
(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
Bebop and Nothingness:
Jazz and Pop at the
End of the Century
by Francis Davis.
Simon & Schuster Macmillan/Schirmer,
315 pages, $25.00.
BuyBebop and Nothingness
A number of the essays in this collection first appeared in
Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights
The Atlantic Monthly; June 1996; Volume 277, No. 6;