Leithauser's 'Corrections' - drama of mundanity

April 22, 2001|By David Rakoff | By David Rakoff,Special to the Sun

"A Few Corrections," by Brad Leithauser, Alfred A. Knopf. 274 pages. $24.

Inasmuch as all novels, when you get right down to it, are obituaries -- tales of lives lived, real or imagined -- it's fairly amazing that the central conceit of "A Few Corrections," Brad Leithauser's mutedly elegant, calmly assured book, hasn't been done before. Namely, it begins with the newspaper death announcement of one Wesley Cross Sultan -- age 63, pillar of society of Stags Harbor, Mich., lifelong valued employee of Great Bay Shipping, beloved father of three, sibling to two, ex-husband to still two more.

We've seen men like Wesley Sultan before, most notably in the work of Tennessee Williams. Like Chance Wayne in "Sweet Bird of Youth," Wesley is a small-town beauty, beloved by women and suspected by men, a kouros who will fail to live up to his early potential.

Leithauser uses the false omniscience of the obituary's concise, dry three paragraphs as a kind of anti-Rosetta Stone. As "A Few Corrections" progresses, each new chapter opens with the obituary, sporting yet another hand-scrawled erratum or addendum, painting a Wesley Sultan who was anything but what he appeared to be.

It's a lovely premise and Leithauser is a writer of prodigious gifts. The book's various characters, Wesley's ex-wife, the contemplative Sally Planter nee Admiraal, his vituperative, Rabelaisian brother Conrad, and his son Luke, whose investigative journey has resulted in this very novel, among others, are all beautifully drawn with the quiet assurance of the master builder.

But it's as if Leithauser was taking his marching orders from the modest sobriety of the Michiganders he's created. The book could use a little bit of the show-off bravura that not only is Leithauser clearly capable of, but would serve the Rashomon construction of the book, as well.

If only Wesley Sultan had been conjured with a little bit of Tennessee Williams' roue's amusement, to say nothing of that febrile martyrdom of the beautiful. "A Few Corrections" could do with a good jolt of cannibalism or a trip to the booby hatch. Once we realize the basic truths about Wes -- that he subsisted on female admiration, both consummated and platonic, that he was essentially doomed, but in a decidedly quiet way -- we aren't constantly revising our picture of him with each new chapter, as we really ought to be. This reader yearns for the stakes to be higher.

But perhaps this is Leithauser's point, after all. "A Few Corrections" is a willfully small tale about a man who was neither great nor famous. Leithauser conveys small- town life with a wistful nostalgia reminiscent of James Agee's Knoxville, while still maintaining a clear-eyed grip on the limits and strictures of such a life. And still, from the childhood memory of a jar full of fireflies, a modest exhibition of Winslow Homer watercolors that presents an almost overwhelming surfeit of beauty and color for the young Sally, to the very eyes of Wesley Sultan himself, Leithauser has written a book shot through with sparks of light that glint from the tiniest of sources, no less bright for their size.

David Rakoff's first book, "Fraud," a collection of essays, will be published by Doubleday in May. He is a frequent contributor to Public Radio International's "This American Life," and the New York Times Magazine.

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