This moving and resourceful novel by one of our most acclaimed writers opens with a newspaper obituary. The deceased is Wesley Sultan, a respectable, unexceptional, civic-minded midwestern businessman. But the novel's first sentence hints of mysterious revelations to come: "There are at least a dozen errors here."
Step by step, the book's narrator--himself mysterious--sets about correcting the errors, investigating the deceptive but appealing Wesley Sultan by way of the lives he touched and often manipulated: his wives, his siblings, his
girlfriends, his children. Each chapter reprints the obituary but each time with a new handwritten amendment--correction piling upon correction until the original has been effectively demolished. It seems that businessman Wesley--handsome, dapper, flirtatious, and ambitious--lived a far more tangled and ambiguous life than the one he presented to the world.
A Few Corrections is both a psychological detective story and an epitaph for a vanishing figure--the gallant, sports-car-driving local Romeo who flourished in midcentury throughout small-town America. Written with humor and lyrical dash, it is also a compelling novel that explores its subject with wit and a flowering tenderness.
Brad Leithauser (The Friends of Freeland) has been compared to John Updike in the past, but in his latest novel he seems to be getting his cues from a realist of an earlier generation, John O'Hara. The novel takes up a cute premise: Wesley Sultan's obituary, published in the Restoration, Mich., Oracle, is not entirely accurate. Wesley's son, Luke a former investment adviser in Manhattan, now on a quest to understand the father he never really knew corrects it, heading each chapter with a copy of the obituary and the marginal notes that he's accumulated. Wes; Wes's brother, Conrad; and Wes's sister, Adelle, grew up in a family fallen on hard times. When he was 17, Wes dropped out of high school and got a lifetime job with Great Bay Shipping. But his real vocation was seduction Wes was the quintessential lady's man. Sally, his first wife and Luke's mother, divorced him for his incorrigible faithlessness; she is now a relatively rich widow, inheriting around $900,000 from her second husband, a doctor named Gordon. As Luke shuttles between Sally, on vacation in France; Conrad, in retirement in Miami; and Adelle, he becomes as much a protagonist as Wes. But neither Luke nor Wes are infused with the kind of Dreiserian energy necessary to power this tale of middle American hopes and disappointments. Sally and Conrad are the live wires in the book: Conrad is fat and dying, and cantankerous as a goat; Sally is happier and wiser now that she is finally able to do just what she wants. Despite its charismatic supporting players, Leithauser's cleverly conceived novel lacks a strong protagonist, and ultimately caves in on its empty center. (Apr. 17)Forecast: Respected poet and novelist Leithauser is in a bit of a slump. The response to his last novel (The Friends of Freeland) and collection of poetry (The Odd Last Thing She Did) was lukewarm at best, and it seems unlikely this well-crafted but listless tale will change reviewers' or book purchasers' tunes.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
-- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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March 11, 2002
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Excerpt from A Few Corrections by Brad Leithauser
RESTORATION-Wesley Cross Sultan, 63, of 2135 N. Westhampton, died suddenly in Lyon Hospital in Stags Harbor, of heart failure. He worked for Great Bay Shipping for 42 years, chiefly in sales. He began his career in the Stags Harbor office, and after stints in Kalamazoo and Cincinnati, Ohio, he finished his career back at Stags Harbor. He retired two years ago in order to pursue full-time his civic pursuits. He was an active member of the Rotarians, the Restoration Chamber of Commerce, the Stags Harbor Betterment Society, and the Thumb of Michigan Prosperity Council. He was also active in the Restoration Episcopal Church, where for many years he sang in the choir.
He was born in Restoration and was a graduate of the old High School on Cherrystone Avenue. He was the son of the late Chester Sultan, the well-known businessman, and the grandson of Hubert Sultan, who served as the mayor of Restoration from 1908 to 1912. Old-time Restorationists will recall Sultan Furniture on Union Street, founded by Hubert and presided over by Chester until he closed its doors in 1935.
He was married twice. His first wife was Sally Planter (Admiraal), now of Grosse Pointe, formerly of Restoration. They were divorced in 1964. He leaves his wife, Tiffany, and their two daughters, Jessica and Winnie; a son, Luke Planter, of New York; a brother, Conrad Sultan, of Miami, Florida; and a sister, Adelle De Vries, of Battle Creek.
There are at least a dozen errors here. Indeed, errors enough to leave a person wondering whether even what's known as incontestably true is true. The life commemorated in these three paragraphs-who actually lived it? What was Wesley Sultan truly like? You might well ask, Was the man's whole existence an illusion?-and the answer you arrived at would naturally hinge on where you started. A philosopher might grandly inform us that all life's illusory. And maybe a speculative historian would announce that we have in Wesley Sultan a man who, prone to deceit, was himself surrounded by that comprehensive web of deceptions known as twentieth-century small-town American life, etc. And yet with all due respect to the pedants and the pundits among us, the deceased left behind a jumbled constellation of people-wives, girlfriends, siblings, children-prepared to testify that he was, if anything, all too real.
Our story begins on April Fools' Day. This would be a balmy spring morning in 1952, the robins and blue jays racketing in those big hospitable wineglass-shaped elms that reigned back then over the streets of Stags Harbor, Michigan, just as they did over small towns throughout the Midwest. Dutch elm disease wouldn't begin to take them down for another decade or two. On this April Fools' Day the streets are animate and graceful and Wesley is seventeen. He's a dapper young man whose lean face and compact squared shoulders make him look taller than he is. You might judge him to be six feet tall-the height which, throughout his adult life, he claimed to be. He is actually five ten and a half.
Although he might plausibly have wished to be taller, Wes could hardly have hoped to be handsomer. For here's a fact that is a fact: This boy is gorgeous. He's just now coming into his young manhood, when he will regularly be described as looking like a Hollywood matinee idol. Perhaps the chin could be a trifle firmer, the nose a millimeter straighter, but no film mogul, assessing young Wes in a screen test, would shift a hair on the boy's head: thick chestnut ringlets that throw off honey-gold sparks in the sun. And there are sparks as well in his electric-blue eyes . . .
Wes knows where he is headed. A preliminary scouting of the personnel building of Great Bay Shipping has already revealed that the first person he will be encountering is a woman and he takes this as an encouraging sign. He prefers to deal with the female sex. Palsied widows, grim girdled matrons, harried young nursing mothers who have neglected to tuck in their blouses as they run round the corner for a pack of cigarettes, acne-splotched teenagers who play the flute in the junior high school marching band-it hardly matters who they are, so long as they are members of the fair sex. He has come to consider women trustworthier than men, or more generous, or more forthright-whatever; he isn't somebody who analyzes his perceptions to a T. Wes simply knows how he feels . . .
Knows, that is, that men can be surprisingly hostile to him. Why this should be, he can't quite say (though he does have the feeling it isn't quite fair). Yet it seems other males, men and boys, frequently object to the way he talks (the wistful voice unexpectedly low, and its vowels, particularly a's, softer than customary in his region of the Midwest).