Leithauser (The Friends of Freeland, 1997, etc.) transcends the writing-school cleverness of his premise in a genuinely funny, quietly elegiac fifth novel.
The story opens with a dully written, straightforward-seeming newspaper obituary of an ordinary businessman, Wesley Sultan, a salesman from a small midwestern town. "There are at least a dozen errors here," says the narrator of the obit, and then embarks on a journey to correct them, one by one—beginning with the deceased's age at the time of death: as it turns out, Wesley was a man who lied about almost everything, including his date of birth. The narrator (whose relationship to Wesley isn't revealed until about page 50) tracks down and interviews Wesley's survivors: ex-wives who can't help but forgive him his many transgressions; a younger brother who loathes him; a half-sister who adulates him; children both legitimate and otherwise. The result is a complicated, bittersweet, sometimes hilarious portrait of this womanizing, prevaricating, small-town traveling salesman: a charming rogue in a pompadour, a dinosaur in a nascent feminist era who was, despite everything, beloved by women—with the exception of his mother. She, for some reason, favored Wesley's younger brother Conrad (a fact that might explain the original cause of Wesley's unquenchable need for female adoration). Poet and essayist Leithauser (Penchants and Places, 1995, etc.) keeps the whole thing from turning overly precious by anchoring it with vivid characters and carefully accumulated place-details. And he does a beautiful job of illuminating both the constraints and the surprising freedoms of small-town middle America in the 1950s and ’60s.
Dialogue sometimes sounds more like writing than real speech, but for the most part, Leithauser maintains a breezy, believable tone while doing justice to his weightier life-and-death themes: a lovely read.