Some writers' grasps fall far short of their reach. Not Brian Hall's. In his fearless second novel (after telling the story of Lewis and Clark in I Would Be Extremely Happy in Your Company), he takes a great risk by entering the mind of the tragic and irascible Robert Frost - and the reviewer's oft-used term tour de force has never been more applicable. This book is a remarkable achievement.
Fall of Frost is not a breezy read, nor is it a salacious "tell all" list of lovers and licentious behavior. What Hall has managed to achieve is a serious, but highly readable, piece of detective work into the mind, spirit and work of one of America's most recognized poets. After reading Fall of Frost, you'll wonder how the poet ever managed to put one foot in front of the other, so tragic and tortured was his life. Robert Frost lost his own father at the age of 11 and his only sister was institutionalized. Frost went on to bury his wife Elinor and only one of his five children survived him.
Hall opens the book toward the end of Frost's life, in Moscow, 1962. Frost is there to meet Khrushchev and make life miserable for anyone not helping that to happen. His story is told in short chapters that move through different stages in the poet's life with just the turn of a page. What happens in between is Hall's intimate interpretation of a fallible man, quick to anger, and quicker to recognize his own shortcomings.
Hall delves deeply into Frost's poetry as well, and yet we never feel lost in a scrum of didactic paragraphs - one of Hall's great achievements is that the novel never seems like a performance, though in reality it is a brilliant one. Hall's life of Robert Frost shows us how art can resurrect us from tragedy, how the seemingly insurmountable grief of loss can be placated with a line here or a stanza there.
Michael Lee is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.