About that obit

Brad Leithauser
Alfred A. Knopf

Have you ever written a loved one’s obituary?

The process is excruciating. You get four to 500 words to encapsulate someone’s life. Chances are you know the dates—birth, weddings, college graduation, children’s births—or you can find them out. But the things that really define a person—the lies, nobilities, loves, quiet desperations—don’t fit onto the photocopied form offered by newspapers or funeral homes.

As you fill in the blanks on the form, you realize how inadequate you are at the task of creating a record that may be the only trace left of a person in a hundred years. You want to say more, to build a cairn to a life; but even as you are faced with the deficiencies of an obituary blueprint, you realize that you can’t build a literary Taj Mahal. No matter how well you think you know someone, or how long, you don’t really know that person at all. And when it comes to obituary-writing time, it’s too late.

A Few Corrections, the fifth novel by Brad Leithauser, seeks to build a monument to a fictitious life. Leithauser succeeds on many levels. Despite a somewhat weak protagonist in Luke Planter, this is an enjoyable story that examines life’s deeper questions.

The book’s premise is deceptively unsophisticated. It begins with a three-paragraph obituary of Wesley Cross Sultan, a nondescript, Midwestern salesman. The first sentence after the obit is, “There are at least a dozen errors here.” The predictable development is that somebody is going to have to correct those errors.

That duty falls to Planter, the deceased’s son. In the beginning, it appears the gene for normality was passed from father to son, but appearances can be deceiving. Neither Planter nor his father lived ordinary lives, and if any genetic material was passed down, it was a chromosome for camouflage. That’s because Planter is the best kind of unreliable narrator, the kind who subconsciously lies to himself at the same time as he passes those filtered observations to the reader. For instance, Planter claims that he’s not much of a drinker, but the reader can see that he spends quite a bit of time with a drink in his hand.

Leithauser’s device for passing on the obituary’s corrections is unique. Each chapter begins with the repeated obituary with margin notes made by Planter. For example, where the original obituary said Sultan was 63 years old, there’s a line drawn through the ‘63’ and a note to the side, ‘62.’

The margin-note technique, like a joke without a peppy punch line, could have become old quickly. It’s a credit to Leithauser’s skill as a writer that it didn’t. He drops bomb after bomb about Sultan’s life into the narrative—it didn’t hurt that Sultan was a womanizing cad—and I wondered how Leithauser would manage to work them all into a margin note. Similar to a real obituary, major events in a person’s life are abridged into a few words, like, “He may have left other children as well.”

Leithauser creates a couple of endearing characters along the way. Conrad Sultan, Planter’s fat, cranky gay uncle, is a masterpiece of sarcasm, bitterness and gluttony. Sally Planter, the love of Wes Sultan’s life and Luke’s mother, is a multi-faceted and eminently real character.

All in all, A Few Corrections is an excellent book to add to the summer reading list. This exercise in character development creates both blemishes and a silky smooth face for Wes Sultan. The 14th chapter, the corrected obituary, does a good job summing up that person’s time on Earth.

From the results, it’s unfortunate that most of us don’t get 14 chapters to compose an obituary in real life.