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November 29, 2009

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Fondness for Detroit

ONE of the challenges inherent in writing about Detroit, especially its past, is that the overwhelming nostalgia for everything - the once-bustling downtown, shopping at Hudson's, streetcars, corner drugstores, work - can overwhelm the narrative. Imagine Pliny the Younger writing about post-Vesuvius Pompeii without occasionally veering into the realm of the sentimental. It can't be done.

In the Detroit native Brad Leithauser's sixth novel, "The Art Student's War," set in the mid-20th-century Motor City, there is a fair amount of hazy, somber nostalgia, but there's also a sweeping, multi-layered and ultimately beautiful story about one woman's search for authenticity, community and passion in a city that once promised so much and now produces so little.

The novel opens brilliantly, in 1943, introducing the 18-year-old Bianca Paradiso (or Bea) as she encounters a wounded young soldier on a Detroit streetcar.

The recently returned soldier hobbles aboard the crowded street car on crutches, and another man rises quickly, patriotically offering the soldier his seat. The soldier, handsome, stoic and blue-eyed, in turn looks at Bea and motions for her to take the vacated seat. "Bea's face blushes so intensely that her nose and forehead actually ache."

That moment - weighted with tension, confusion, possibility, empathy and lust - serves as a sort of catalyst for Bea. Soon, everything in her life takes on the same urgency, producing a coming-of-age tale accelerated by its setting, a city fueled by 24-hour factories and the constant hum and edginess that come with war.

Leithauser evokes a nation in which war is not simply a backdrop of political theater, but an obvious and omnipresent reality in the lives of all citizens.

Eventually, the war reaches Bea, when one of her professors at the Institute Midwest, a Detroit art school, urges her to accept a job sketching wounded soldiers at a local hospital.

This small act of civic duty ushers into Bea's life a series of upheavals that match the upheaval of the city and world around her (race riots, new roles for women, unprecedented growth, a seemingly endless war).

Bea begins a whirlwind courtship with the world-weary art student Ronny Olsson, whom she quickly learns is the wealthy heir to the chain Olsson's Drugs. Soon after, she falls for one of the wounded soldiers she sketches, the melancholic philosopher Henry Vanden Akker, the son of a strict Dutch Reformed couple from the suburbs.

Genuinely in love with two different men, Bea spends much of the novel both horrified and thrilled. Meanwhile, her solid, blue-collar Italian family, so different from the families of the two men she loves, begins to disintegrate into a dramatic and confusing cloud, as years of buried tensions rise up amid the tumult of the times.

In short, like most coming-of-age stories, this one is about the loss of innocence, for a young woman, her family and her city.

Leithauser is adept at writing about Detroit, and even more adept at writing about it from a young painter's point of view. "It was odd how, here on the West Side," Bea thinks to herself in the midst of a conversation with Henry, "even the sounds of traffic felt different - they felt yellower, more loosely put together than on her own East Side." (Any metro Detroiter will tell you that, yes, yes, that's exactly true!)

But sometimes Leithauser's prose takes on the sort of preciousness that can hinder a historical novel. Still, this is a skillful novel. Often Leithauser's books are brilliant but not quite accessible; but "The Art Student's War" is straightforward and engaging. In fact, it is one of the finest novels about Detroit's history to come along in years.


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