Here's a tough sell: a 300-page poem. And it's about lepidoptera. I suspect most readers would rather be stuck on the end of a pin but wait. This novel in verse by Brad Leithauser catches the eye with all the charm and complexity of an Ozark Swallowtail.
"Darlington's Fall" tells the quiet story of a wealthy butterfly scientist at the turn of the century. If that's not alluring enough, it's told in 600 ten-line sonnets. Fortunately, Leithauser knows what he's up against: "It's long, I know, for a poem," he admits. "But it's short for a novel." That may sound like special pleading, but this is a journey as unlikely and remarkable as the annual 2,200-mile migration of monarchs.
The story opens with 7-year-old Russ Darlington catching a frog "the jewel of the world: conceived / In mud and muck" in the woods around Storey, Indiana. With his typical measure of bittersweet wit, the narrator notes that "there are some / Encounters that configure your soul." He's a strange little boy, "Little Mister Naturalist" they call him. "There's a suspicion / That the boy's a little odd," but allowances are made for a child who's lost his mother and remains the only heir to the wealthiest man in the county. Besides, "he gives every sign ... Of being that thing so alarming whenever it / Appears in a slip of a child: a born professor."
In fact, exploring in the woodland swamp teaches him more than a university ever could. When he spots "a miracle on the wing," a Urania marina thousands of miles from its home in Mexico, his destiny is set. Mounting it carefully, he already knows "there's a fine pressure to be found / Between the maiming and the maintaining; / It's a matter, as much as anything, of trust." Striking that balance in his own life, of course, proves more difficult.
True to his destiny and with his anxious but indulgent father supporting him all the way, Russ begins weekend visits to the university at 13 to pursue his love of creepy crawling things. He attracts the attention of Dr. Schrock, a ghastly looking Austrian professor who encourages Russ's intellectual interests to the exclusion of all else.
By the time he enrolls, he's practically a professor himself. But his intellectual and emotional development is still in the larva stage. He has no patience with novels "Honestly why in the world look there?" or poetry, "which likewise failed to progress." No, at the turn of the century, with the new field of genetics generating a rush of discovery, Russ couldn't be more thrilled: "Oh, what great / Good fortune," he thinks, "to be a 'bug man' in this age!"
Traveling with Dr. Schrock to Idaho, he nets "a nothing: a nonesuch: a no-known category," the kind of discovery that makes a lepidopterist's career take flight. He returns to campus with rumors of greatness fluttering around him (how much college has changed). He's convinced more than ever that "nothing born of earth could rival the glory / Of the butterfly," but his own nature won't be so easily denied.
Against the muted concern of his father and the strong objections of Dr. Schrock, he falls for the most alluring girl on campus, a flighty young woman who quickly discovers that waiting for her husband to return from his bugs is not the life she wants. Exacerbating that tension between home and lab, early in their marriage, he falls during an expedition in the Pacific and breaks his back. Both of them realize they can't continue in their present arrangement, but the separation provides neither of them with much relief.
Leithauser's story suffers no deprivation from its form. There's nothing he can't catch in this net of verse. In fact, the narrative sounds magically enhanced by his quirky 10-line stanzas with their "catch-as-catch-can rhymes" flitting through every line. (Wry, eerie drawings by the author's brother complement the novel's tone.)
Most charming of all, perhaps, are the narrator's parenthetical revelations about the distant family connection across species and genus that ties him to this long-forgotten butterfly collector.
Against all the evidence, both poet and scientist share a romantic faith in the sacred elements of life. "By every means / At his disposal," he writes, "Darlington intended to cling / To the quaint notion that our Universe / Admits a few objects without flaw or stain."
The sadness here over years of loneliness and physical pain is always tempered by his quest for some connection across the eons, some way to chart the genetic line from slime to sublime. "How are ethics," Russ wonders, "dissolved in the fluid of the brain?" Leithauser moves through this paradox with humility and insight. His accessible, robust stanzas enable the kind of open philosophical discussion that could sound pedantic in prose.
Russ can't deny that Darwin's theory cuts both persuasively and cruelly: "It seems there's but one penalty / For even the most minor infraction of the Law / Of Survival of the Fittest, and that is death."
But there's another kingdom in this world besides Animalia and Plantae (or even Fungi, Protista, and Monera). And that's "Love's kingdom, which nobody yet, / Neither mathematician nor poet, / Has gotten the measure of." Darlington's final fall, appropriately, is a great step up a relief both natural and ridiculous, the sort of remarkable discovery one makes without warning in a woodland swamp, or a fine novel. So don't be squeamish. Pick it up.
Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.