The Great Sultan

A Few Corrections

Brad Leithauser
Knopf, 274 pp., $24.00

Brad Leithauser’s fascinating new novel looks beyond Detroit, where the author was born, up to the Thumb of Michigan, where, not far from Saginaw and Bay City, fictional towns called Restoration and Stags Harbor slowly dwindle, while their younger citizens flee to livelier and more prosperous scenes. Leithauser has a tartly affectionate sense of what life once was like in places like these. He takes note of the after-school activities recorded in the 1952 yearbook of Restoration High: the Future Nurses Club, the Radio Club (“aims to interest boys and girls about radio”), the Square Dance Club, the Ushers Club (“composed of uniformed girls who are on call for working the checkroom at school parties”), and the Lost and Found Club. Restoration can sound like Lake Wobegon, but while A Few Corrections is steadily entertaining, it has more serious aims in mind.

One of the members of the Class of ‘52, Wes Sultan (Social Committee, Future Businessmen of America), in fact never graduated, and his family, like the town, had seen better days. The first known Sultan came to America in the early 1800s from Yorkshire, and his good Methodist descendants went into retail furniture and prospered for a time. Wes’s grandfather Hubert built an imposing house in Restoration and was the town’s mayor until the voters turned him out for graft and embezzlement in 1912. Hubert’s feckless son Chester ran the family store into bankruptcy in 1935, just as his first son, Wes, entered the world. Chester stopped going to church, became a Democrat and a steady drinker, and spent his days playing pinochle at the Caprice Club or idling with his cronies in the park, until he drowned in 1942 while swimming (drunk? suicidal?) in Lake Huron.

A Few Corrections begins with Wes dead in his early sixties. It opens with his obituary in the local paper, composed with the usual discretion: place and cause of death, work history and early retirement, memberships and church affiliation, birthplace and education, the names of his father, grandfather, and survivors, including two wives, two siblings, and three children. At once, an unidentified voice remarks, “There are at least a dozen errors here,” and the rest of the novel undertakes their correction.

The voice, we later learn, belongs to Wes’s son, Luke Planter, who took the family name of the Detroit doctor his mother married after her divorce from Wes. Like a lawyer-detective, Luke collects testimony from his mother, his father’s brother and sister, and Wes’s second wife. The obituary has Wes’s birthdate and age at death wrong, it turns out, because he lied about his age when he got his first (and only) job, as a salesman. Luke’s mother, Sally, was really not Wes’s first wife but his second. He carefully concealed an impulsive earlier marriage to a Polish immigrant girl, who bore him a son before he ditched them. (Indeed, since he never bothered to divorce her, his other marriages …

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