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When Detroit brimmed with hope and possibility

By Peter Behrens
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, December 5, 2009

THE ART STUDENT'S WAR

By Brad Leithauser

Knopf. 496 pp. $28.95

The protagonist of Brad Leithauser's sixth novel is Bea Paradiso, an 18-year-old Detroit art student in the spring of 1943. The gigantic factory town has been converted from car plant to arsenal and hums with purpose and zeal. Tanks, guns and bombers come off the assembly lines by the thousands. Everyone who wants a job gets one, including tens of thousands of migrants, black and white, streaming north from Appalachia and the Cotton Belt. Bea's father, Vico Paradiso, an Italian immigrant, runs a house-building crew and has more work than he can handle, banging up homes and neighborhoods by the dozen, in an economy bursting at its seams with pride and overtime.

Many novelists are in unrequited love with an idea of their home towns. With "The Art Student's War," Leithauser, a Detroit native, delivers a homage of depth and texture to the churning wonder that was Detroit in its golden age. It makes for poignant reading in a season when Motor City is on the ropes.

The novel opens with one of its best scenes: Aboard a crowded streetcar, Bea, tall and radiantly pretty, is on her way home from a class in still-life painting. A male passenger offers his seat to a wounded, very handsome soldier, who gallantly offers it to Bea. She must accept, of course, because turning down the offer would imply that the wounded boy is less than a man. A beautifully turned scene, it brings the reader up close to the novel's long-lost city and the protagonist's yearning, intelligence and confusion.

That crowded streetcar bounces back into her consciousness often during the next 500 pages, the black-haired soldier, glimpsed quickly and lost forever, suggesting an alternate universe where life and romance might possibly be perfect. As Bea accumulates experience and tries to assemble a picture of life, she struggles to see beneath such superficial dreams with varying degrees of daring and success.

As damaged men return from war zones, Bea gets an art-school assignment to sketch young soldiers in their hospital beds. The professor hopes that her female gaze -- as much as her pencil -- will tune up morale in the grim wards. Meanwhile, she dates a fellow art student, Ronny Olsson, a rich boy, unhappily 4F due to a heart murmur and possibly gay. He channels all his frustrations into rampant connoisseurship, and his passion for Bea blows hot and cold. Confused, she tumbles into something like love with one of the wounded young soldiers, to whom she eventually "gives herself" in another of Leithauser's poignant scenes. Rarely have two characters managed to have less fun losing their virginity than Bea and her terminally Calvinist beau.

Leithauser avoids the historical novelist's trap of obsessing over period detail, piling on startling factoids or setting up thickets of exposition, which can make a story read like a Google-infested fact tour. Instead, he provides a living, breathing vision of Detroit in its heyday.

"The Art Student's War" does not have much to say about art or war, however. Only the first half is set in wartime, a section that starts on the streetcar and ends with Bea getting influenza. The second half moves to postwar Detroit: Bea's career as an artist seems to have dropped from her grasp almost unnoticed while she has been settling into the role of motherhood.

For all her radiance, Bea becomes an oddly passionless character with a nice lawyer for a husband and a nice house in the suburbs, two not-that-difficult siblings, a shoplifting mother and a sick aunt. She just doesn't have a lot to worry about -- a large, maybe fatal, problem in any novel. One senses that, for the author, war and art have run out of thematic steam, and so the reader is ultimately left stranded as well.

Behrens is the author of "The Law of Dreams."

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