In a fog of megalomania, Robert Frost undertook a grueling trek to Russia to negotiate with Nikita Khrushchev. It was autumn, 1962, and the 88-year-old poet, suffering from deafness and a painful prostate condition, still craved the limelight.
In his brilliant novel based on Frost's life, "Fall of Frost," Brian Hall suggests a further motivation for the white-maned poet's demand to meet with Khrushchev. Frost, according to Hall, wanted to make up to John F. Kennedy for having "blown" his performance at the presidential inauguration. At that momentous occasion, attempting to read the poem he had written, Frost was blinded by the sun as he stood on the cold platform. Hall explains, "With the sharp wind making his eyes water, and sixty million people watching him, the sunlight burns off the white page, and the vice-president with a face like a bloodhound holds his hat out to offer shade, but now it's too dark amid the glare. What a fiasco!"
The negotiations with Khrushchev, however, failed to redeem. "While they [Frost and Khrushchev] were agreeing about the need to be magnanimous," writes Hall, "Khrushchev the almighty was secretly sending missiles to Cuba."
Hall has divided his novel into 130 short chapters, grouped not chronologically but according to facets of Frost's life. The trip to Russia is the novel's primary focus, and chapters devoted to that adventure appear often. Hall finds the underside of Frost's public life fascinating. He cleverly crafts internal dialogue and conversation attached to real-life occurrences, and consistently conveys sympathy for a talented man whose life was crowded with tragedy.
The author has rich biographical material to draw on: In 1900 Frost and his wife, Elinor, lost their first child to influenza when he was 4 years old. Frost, according to Hall, believed it was "bungled doctoring" that killed his son. While Frost turned to poetry after the crushing blow, Elinor became embittered and withdrawn, increasingly critical of her husband. Many tragedies followed: Son Carol took his own life at age 38, daughter Irma went mad, daughter Marjorie died after giving birth. Only daughter Lesley survived to lead a normal life.
Hall creates in Frost a character who loved his children deeply "for what they are ... for the trouble they experience doing things other children do without thought or feeling." He ascribes a certain amount of parental guilt to Frost, having him muse at one point: "In this haphazard household of caravaners -- meals, if any, at all hours, father to bed at 3:00 a.m., mother up at 6:00 -- there's no telling who's sleeping where." He regrets that he spends so much time away at readings, even though these appearances are the main source of his income.
Hall's Frost considers his marriage to Elinor a failure. Four months after Elinor's death at age 66, he seduced his secretary, Kathleen Morrison, "to show her he wasn't a harmless old impotent grieving widower." She quickly supplanted Elinor in Frost's affections.
The strongest feature of Hall's novel is perhaps its portrayal of the poet's relationship with his troubled son, Carol, who also aspired to become a poet.
In contrast to his sociable, voluble father, Carol was silent, introverted and unable to make friends. Hall imagines Frost thinking, "The boy's poetry was never much good. ... Carol somehow didn't have the ear." Another prominent thread weaving through the novel is Frost's friendship with British poet Edward Thomas. Thomas wavered between moving to America to teach and going to France to fight for the British in the Great War. He chose the latter and was killed in the Battle of Arras 10 weeks after his arrival at the front. In his bereavement, Frost wrote for his friend "The Road Not Taken."
Hall takes readers deep into Frost's mind as he grieves for Thomas, and, indeed, throughout the novel he captures the interior life of a public man in a remarkably credible way. If one purpose of fiction is to enlarge readers' empathy for others, Hall has decidedly succeeded.
Katherine Bailey also reviews for Publishers Weekly and the Philadelphia Inquirer. She lives in Bloomington.