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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 were bigamous, and his three acknowledged children, Luke included, are legally bastards.) He died not in a hospital but in what sounds like a strip club. He did not take early retirement from his job of forty-two years but was quietly fired.

The Wes Sultan who emerges from his son’s investigations was very handsome, very vain, and not very smart. As a youth he dressed nattily, drove a tomato-red Bel Air convertible, and, though not especially articulate, had a fine singing voice. He was, in short, the sort of young smoothie whom older men often find impressive, up to a point, and women of any age may find attractive. He had ambition but lacked the diligence to fulfill it. Though he hated the idea of seeming “small-town,” all he knew of the larger world came from movies, popular magazines, and billboards. Above all, he was a habitual liar and, like the traveling salesman of folklore and occasionally real life, a compulsive Don Juan who hardly ever met a woman he didn’t try to proposition. Luke Planter encounters strong suspicions that in addition to his four known children Wes begot a number more while on the road.

Just as Leithauser’s small-town Michigan has literary antecedents—in Edgar Lee Masters, Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, Faulkner, and James Gould Cozzens, for example—Wes Sultan has some inexact but suggestive affinities with provincial charmers of earlier American fiction. The appearance of an “Opdyke” in a list of former pastors of the local Dutch Reformed Church could be a writer’s unobtrusive salute to a precursor; and like John Updike’s randy Rabbit Angstrom, Wes tries to love his way into a better life, though Rabbit is less a liar than an avoider of unpleasantness, and he does eventually move upward in Brewster, Pennsylvania. And Wes, though less gifted, also owes something to Fitzgerald’s Jimmy Gatz, the “fine-appearing, gentlemanly young man” from North Dakota who with the help of the Great War and the gangster Meyer Wolfshiem dreamed his romantic falsehoods into temporary truth as the great Jay Gatsby. But Wes’s dreams never came true outside his own impoverished imagination, and he’s remembered by old acquaintances as a barroom conspiracy theorist grousing about moral decline in business and politics and mourning for good old days he never really knew.

Luke Planter makes one think of Nick Carraway. He, too, is Ivy League, from Princeton; he too worked on Wall Street in boom times and then quit, to return to his roots in the Middle West. Where Nick puts together Gatsby’s history more or less incidentally from the scattered accounts of Jordan Baker, Jimmy Gatz’s father, Meyer Wolfshiem, and Gatsby himself, Luke learns about the father he never really knew by persistently questioning those who knew him all too well.

He travels about, using frequent flier miles, to gather testimony from his family. Sally, an intelligent, literate woman, now quite well off after the death of the estimable Dr. Planter, divides her time between Grosse Pointe, her North Carolina condo, and a rented house in Burgundy, where she reads Proust and searches for her own temps perdu while trying to absorb a culture she knows is older and subtler than her own. She understands how grievously Wes has damaged her, yet she has intense memories of his lovemaking and knows that in some remote, unimpassioned way she still loves him.

Conrad Sultan, Wes’s younger brother, also escaped from Restoration, though not to satisfactions like Sally’s. A fine high school athlete and diligent student, he won a scholarship to Vanderbilt and settled in Miami, where he prospered as an accountant. But Luke finds him in sad decline. A bachelor and, it emerges, homosexual, he has let himself go physically; he eats and drinks too much and he’s slowly dying of cancer. He claims to despise his brother and indeed the whole family, and he enjoys making nasty revelations about them. But within his uncle’s cynical malevolence Luke discerns a lurking affection for himself and something more than that for Sally, to whom Conrad in the end leaves all his worldly goods even though he used to sneer at her liberal spending habits.

Wes’s sister, Adelle, and Tiffany, his second acknowledged wife, have never really escaped from Restoration. Tiffany, younger than Luke, tritely pretty and lively but steely inside, had met Wes in a tavern, though he told people they met in church. She “outgrew” him after the birth of their twins, and they separated. But she stayed in Restoration, where she tells Luke that his father was still a shameless chaser in his sixties. Adelle got only as far as Battle Creek, where she lives with her husband, a retired plumber. They are childless; Bernie spends his time watching TV or dozing in front of the screen, while Adelle bakes burnt cookies for the neighborhood kids. She clings to her conventional idea of her dead brother (indeed, she wrote the obituary). She despises Tiffany as “whore-y,” sniffily gossips about Wes’s final affair in Stags Harbor, stands in some awe of Sally, and disagrees with Conrad about everything. But she’s glad to hear Luke refute Bernie’s notion that Wes really had no more interest in women than Conrad did. Indeed, by firsthand accounts he was very good in bed:

Wasn’t this what she yearned to hear—that the wandering hero who’d beached up at the Commodore Hotel, shoulder-to-shoulder with transients and alcoholics and all sorts of unspeakable riffraff (when he wasn’t covertly shacking up with a not-yet-divorced-woman- from-the-Department-of-Motor-Vehicles-whose-son-was-a-druggie-and-a-jailbird), had indeed once embodied all the romance of the handsome prince of a fairy tale?

Adelle is trivial and pathetic, but her hunger for “romance” hints at a danger for Leithauser’s storytelling. The fate of fictional American innocents who come to grief at home or back East (to say nothing of Europe) is temptingly easy to blame on the American landscape and its history—what Fitzgerald has Nick Carra-way rather magniloquently describe at the end of Gatsby as “something commensurate to [man’s] capacity for wonder,” which the settlers once had and then lost forever. Sally and even the embittered Conrad approach a similar mood near the end of A Few Corrections. Though their memories of life in Restoration are deeply unhappy ones, the town they were young in feels to both of them like a place of “beauty and liberality and ease,” one not “impoverished and uncultured” as they now understand it to be but “as complete as anywhere on the globe.”

These may be more self-conscious versions of Adelle’s romances and fairy tales. At one point Luke Planter speaks of “this sort of pilgrimage, or whatever it is I’m pursuing,” and in the dimly allegorical landscape of America, where place names like Concord, Providence, Phoenix, Independence, New Hope, and Defiance mingle with names stolen from Europe or the Indians and with tributes to national or local heroes, Leithauser’s allusion to John Bunyan makes some sense. Moreover, the book’s invented world has some ironic allegories of its own, like Restoration and the village of Stags Harbor, where Wes, then single, lived and died after Tiffany kicked him out. As newlyweds, Wes and Sally lived on Majestic Avenue; when divorced and penniless, she moved with little Luke to Downward Lane before she achieved Grosse Pointe. And Wes’s full name, Wesley Cross Sultan, has overtones of Methodist fervor, the romance of crusading, and the delights of the seraglio.

Behind such playful allegorizing stands a larger if vaguer sense of what Wes’s history might mean. Where Adele looks for a handsome prince, Conrad finds a pious impersonator on the lines of Spenser’s Archimago:

[Wes] was very keen on virtue—for everybody else. Because everybody else’s virtue…was the most piquant spice imaginable. For his own vices. You see? What’s the fun of being bad in a truly evil world?

The remark may say less about Wes himself than about Conrad’s imagination, and Sally does something similar in almost pardoning Wes’s dreadful offenses against her and his children because her “born storyteller’s eye” appreciates the material it has received: “She is weaving her life,” Luke fondly observes, “into a satisfying narrative whole, a rich tapestried sequence—a tapestry whose central character is modest little Sally Admiraal of Restoration, Michigan, improbably placed in the role of global wanderer.”

A Few Corrections amuses itself with allegorical possibilities that are too quaint and risky to pursue further nowadays. (Hawthorne may have been the last serious American writer to get away with it.) Luke creates colorful images of Wes out of other people’s stories, but they remain “stories,” tales whose truth is questionable, as truth never is in allegory. Hearing that his father liked to wear grown-up clothes even as a youth, Luke pictures him at sixteen, in an altered suit of his own dead father’s, admiring himself in a full-length mirror:

Slowly, he pivots left, pivots right, jubilating in what he sees. Isn’t life the best thing going?… He fires a glance deep into the mirror’s vertical catacombs of silver and glass, far into the future, where our gazes fuse at last. He all but recognizes me.

Hearing Sally’s idea that Wes aimed to give women pleasure rather than impose his will on them, Luke can find a new view of his father in a letter from a family friend about a local wedding describing how Wes insisted that the bride’s arthritic grandmother dance with him, as she secretly longed to do. He told her, “Well I’m honored that you’ve waited so long for me,” and she remembered him until she died. Luke is in search of someone who usually exists only in someone else’s perception, as objects of desire often do.

Near the end Luke tells Conrad that “I’m going to write a book” about it all and that this will require him

to do something only people in novels ever seem to do: remake my life. Not merely change my job, uproot my every routine, replot my ambitions—but dig down into the very soil of my life and reconfigure the fixed roots of my thinking.

These seem appropriate metaphors for someone named “Planter,” and of course he already is a person in a novel. But Leithauser the novelist is not just smiling at a newcomer to his own craft. Though Luke has outlined a rather interesting personal history of his own—Grosse Pointe, Princeton, investment banking, marriage (to the Spenserianly named “Angelina,” daughter of a Cuban émigré dentist in Westchester), divorce, serious depression, quitting Wall Street—he, like his informants, seems gradually to fade away into his quest for a father hardly worth knowing. And his new vocation even turns him into a liar like Wes, solemnly promising Sally to tell no one about the private scandals which his storytelling, this novel, will publish to the world.

The idea of art consuming life—everything Gatsby dismissed as “just personal”—is of course hardly new. But this book finds new images for it, ones that reattach it in unexpected ways to life as some Americans have lived it over the last half-century. It’s a pleasure to find a writer drawn so genially and openly to the practice of his fiction; in A Few Corrections Brad Leithauser’s wit and his sympathy for his creatures convincingly come together to produce a remarkably satisfying story.

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