According to his obituary, Wesley Sultan died at the age of 63, leaving behind three children, a wife, an ex-wife, a brother, a sister, and a life-long business career. According to his obituary, Wesley Sultan led a quiet, respectable, and unremarkable life. Our narrator, however, is about to discover that nothing could be further from the truth.
Using Sultan’s obituary as a road map to the unknown terrain of the man himself, our narrator discovers dead-ends, wrong turns, and unexpected destinations in every line. As he travels from the bleak Michigan winter to the steamy streets of Miami to the idyllic French countryside, in search of those who knew Wesley best, he gradually reconstructs the life of an exceptionally handsome, ambitious, and deceptive man to whom women were everything. And as the margins of the obituary fill with handwritten corrections, as details emerge and facts are revised, our mysterious narrator–whose interest in his quarry is far from random–has no choice but to confront the truth of his own life as well.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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From the Trade Paperback edition.
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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). Or they don't like his looks (or like his looks too much). Or maybe his stylish clothes offend them-his bone-white trench coat, his paisley silk scarf.
Admittedly, these are not the clothes his friends or his classmates wear. As far as Wes is concerned, his classmates have small town written all over them, they have Restoration High School stamped on their foreheads. It's apparent in the way they dress, and talk, and even stand. It's as though they don't see what Wes sees: There is another-a larger and a brighter-world out there.
In truth, Wes has never been a reader, and most of his cosmopolitan dreams of a brighter life have their origin in the Mercury Movie Palace on Restoration's main street, Union Avenue. Wes is an avid moviegoer. But he also looks to magazines, to billboards, to the occasional tourist from the big city, caught pausing briefly in a Union Avenue service station or luncheonette. Wes keeps his eyes open.
If his clothes occasionally bring him a stranger's taunt-then so be it. He's used to being pestered and teased. For nearly the whole of his life he has been engaged in an intense civil war with his brother, Conrad, who is two years younger and who cares nothing for clothes or for movies or for the game of trying to charm the world's women. The brothers' battles are frequently public, and much appreciated as neighborhood entertainment. On ramshackle, struggling Scully Street in the modest community of Restoration (pop. 4,200), few neighborhood chronicles offer the long-term interest-few have done so much to liven up evening conversation in the street's cramped and poorly ventilated kitchens-that the Sultan brothers' ferocious, ever-evolving rivalry does. People regularly take sides, including their mother; everyone knows that Conrad is their mother's favorite.
On this brilliant April Fools' Day in 1952, Dora Sultan has been a widow for a decade. Her husband, Chester Everett Sultan, drowned in a swimming accident in Lake Huron on June 21, 1942. Chester was known to be a strong swimmer, and out along the edges of his small funeral service-like uninvited guests who keep a respectful distance but will not be chased altogether from the scene-a number of nasty rumors circulated. It was just possible that Chester Sultan had come to an unnatural end. Today, more than half a century later, when all the facts we have are catalogued and assessed (Chester's equable mood in the weeks before his death, his sedentary lifestyle and high blood pressure, his heavy consumption of beer on the day he died and the chilliness and choppiness of the water), suicide seems only a remote possibility. But we'll never know for sure.
Whatever was actually in the man's head as he stepped into the icy lake on that first day of summer, 1942, Chester had long been something of an aimless soul. He hadn't held a job since the dissolution of the family business, Sultan Furniture ("You can live like a Sultan too"), in 1935. The store's final days had been rancorous. In late 1934, with bankruptcy looming, Chester invited in a partner from outside the family. It seems there was little left to do but argue, and each was soon accusing the other of being a swindler. Their raging over the division of assets continued long after there remained assets to divide. The store, a Restoration town landmark, was boarded up.
The loss of Sultan Furniture altered Chester's life in various unexpected ways. It turned him away from churchgoing (he quit attending services at First Restoration Methodist). It led him to the Democratic party (he went to his grave insisting on Herbert Hoover's personal responsibility for the Depression which eventually sank the store). And it sharpened his thirst. He became a steady, a daylong, drinker.
Chester spent most of his days on Union Avenue, in the "library" of the Caprice Club, where over the last seven years of his life he played tens of thousands of hands of pinochle. When the weather was warm, he and his "gentlemen friends" (a term employed without self-conscious irony; by all reports, Chester was a constitutionally humorless man) whiled away their afternoons in Restoration's Toledo Heights Park. Chester showed something of a proprietary attitude toward the park, whose fountain had been inaugurated by his father, Hubert Sultan, mayor of Restoration from 1908 to 1912. (Hubert's failed 1912 reelection campaign was stained by accusations of financial irregularities-something of a motif in the Sultan family annals.) For all his fervent new Democratic ideals, Chester badgered the police to keep Toledo Heights Park free of bums and riffraff-those among the unemployed who, unlike Chester's "gentlemen friends," had failed to prosper even in pre-Depression days. In their search for a park, the lowlife settled literally lower: down in Restoration's Memorial Gardens, on the banks of the Michicabanabee (Me-she-cah-bah-NAH-bee) River-the very park that, as the family's fortunes spiraled downward, Chester's two sons, Wesley and Conrad, would eventually think of as their own backyard.
Chester's death soon confirmed widely whispered suspicions that neither the grandeur of the gabled gingerbread and fish-scale Victorian-era house on Crestview Boulevard, in the heart of Restoration's "Heights" section, nor the prestige of the Sultan family name would safeguard the widow and her fatherless children. (The family name remains something of a mystery. The Sultans originally came from Yorkshire, although their name improbably suggests a Sephardic Jewish or even an Islamic forebear, which perhaps accounts for the determinedly Christian Christian-names favored by the Sultans over the years-an abundance of Christophers, Luthers, and Marys, as well as Wesley.) The widow was all but bankrupt. Since the possibility of going to work was unimaginable, Dora took the only practicable line: She lost altitude, selling the mansion on the Heights and descending into a boxy duplex on Scully Street. Not surprisingly, she soon succumbed to a chronic illness which left her "not very well" in Sultan family parlance, and which justified her disappearance from those social pursuits that had previously consumed her. But if in hindsight Dora remains an authentically pitiable figure (someone who had every reason for feeling that the world had come crashing down round her ears), there's no evidence to suggest that she, who outlived her husband by four decades, suffered from any diagnosable physical malady. (Her mental health is another matter. In the final two decades of her life she seldom ventured outside her home, and even in her glory days on the Heights she earned a reputation for moody and erratic behavior. To be singled out as Dora Sultan's favorite child-Conrad's fate-may have been as much burden as blessing.)
Though there was little physical resemblance between the two brothers, Conrad was no less well favored than his brother: He too was surpassingly good-looking. His face was comparatively wide-set, with little of Wesley's angular fine-tooling in the nose and cheekbones, and little of Wesley's rich, contrasting coloring. Conrad's thick, wavy hair was sandy-colored, like his freckled skin, causing eyebrows and eyelashes nearly to disappear-a monochrome effect working only to enhance a pair of extraordinarily large, slightly hooded eyes (no less striking than Wesley's), whose irises were an arresting, exotic fusion of olive-greens and amber gold-browns.
Both boys were blessed with precise hand-eye coordination. Organized sports held little appeal for slight-boned Wes, whose athletic gifts were dissipated in contests that brought him little acclaim: He had a flair for Ping-Pong, for bumper pool, for the jangly contests of the penny arcade. Conrad was another matter. Equipped with strength as well as coordination, he was a rising school athletic star well before he reached his full adult height. In 1950-51, his freshman year at Restoration High School, wrestling at 120 pounds, he wound up with the team's best record, nine wins and two losses (a performance he would improve to 10-1 the following season). And the spring of his freshman year, he was promoted to the varsity track team after blazing through the hundred-yard dash in 10.6 seconds-a time trimmed to 10.4 by the end of the season. He was just one-tenth of a second away from the Restoration High School dash record.
That record was destined to fall, a prospect that offers one plausible reason why Wesley, on that April morning in 1952, scouted the personnel office of Great Bay Shipping. He may well have vowed not to be enrolled at Restoration High School on that imminent occasion when his baby brother broke the dash record and became the school's "fastest human."
Or maybe Wes's thinking ran this way: What's the point in wasting three more months when nothing I'm "learning" will be of any future use? He would take a shortcut, cut a corner-throughout his life, Wes was a great one for shortcuts, for corner-cutting. He sensed the existence of another sort of race out there, richer by far than any gasping sprint upon a graveled high school track, and he meant to get the jump on all rivals.
Meanwhile, in the Sultan household another life was unfolding. The boys had a little sister, Adelle, born in 1938, who was no athlete and no looker. In truth, many people in town viewed the extraordinary handsomeness of the Sultan boys as an undeserved bounty (neither Chester nor Dora was anything better than plain), and a certain reassured, neighborly comfort was taken in the appearance of this pinch-faced, myopic, large-nosed, allergy-afflicted little girl whose timid life seemed fated to bypass, for better or worse, most of the clamor and upheaval of the Sultan household.
A fresh, exploratory breeze is sliding over Lake Huron on this bright spring morning, a Tuesday, the first of April, 1952 . . . The bucktoothed woman who confronts our Wesley as he strides into the personnel office of Great Bay Shipping is a Miss Henrietta Scoobles. (The name survives to this day in the Sultan family oral archives-preserved, no doubt, by virtue of its humorous, antic oddity.) The confident young man with the breathy, throaty voice and the princely curls instantly charms her. Although Miss Scoobles discovers in the first minute or two that he's only seventeen (hence, at least a year too young for any position at Great Bay), she gives him the better part of twenty minutes. The two of them chat away. She has the largest set of front teeth Wes has ever seen.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
What can you say about a guy who died? Brad Leithauser has written a book that reminds me a little of early Roth (e.g., 'When She Was Good'), but it's not nearly as good because, unlike Roth, his characters fail to live and breath and make one care about them. Maybe the mass of men do live lives of quiet desperation, but that doesn't make those lives interesting.
Former Manhattan investment advisor Luke Cross reads the Restoration Oracle obituary for his recently deceased father, Wesley Cross Sultan. He cannot believe that the three paragraphs in the Michigan paper contain a ¿dozen errors¿. Luke notices that even Wesley¿s age is wrong and if he, who hardly knew his dad, can see obvious mistakes how many more are not so blatant. Luke begins to edit the obit, making corrections. He also decides to learn more about his father. He visits living relatives and ex-wives to learn the truth about Wesley. Luke quickly concludes that his father was a great womanizer and even greater liar. In other words, the father he does not know more and more looks like a charming rogue who one either adored or loathed. A FEW CORRECTIONS is an intriguing look at the freedoms and controls society places on an individual to conform even one with wide latitude. The story line is amusing and melancholy sometimes at the same time. Some of the relatives are strong characters with three dimension personalities, but the key players Luke and Wesley invoke nothing for the audience as they seem flat in comparison. Still, Brad Leithauser has written a different type of tale as this character study focuses on a person through the final statement about their life: the obituary. Harriet Klausner