At the center of David Gilbert's new novel, & Sons, is a novelist who became a Pulitzer Prize-winning sensation at age 28. But by the time he's 79, A.N. Dyer wishes that he'd never written a word.
"& Sons" opens at the society funeral of Charles Topping, Dyer's childhood friend, where the great writer fumbles his way through a eulogy to a packed church of high-society gawkers.
“And there he sat, up front, all alone in the first pew. For those who asked, the ushers confirmed it with a reluctant nod. Yep, that's him. For those who cared but said nothing, they gave themselves away by staring sideways and pretending to be impressed by the nearby stained glass, as if devotees of Cornelius the Centurion or Godfrey of Bouillon instead of a seventy-nine year old writer with gout.”
The novel is narrated by Philip Topping, son of the recently deceased. Philip is a catty, unreliable observer who, it becomes clear, imagines that he would vastly have preferred Dyer as a father to the hapless Charlie.
“Kaye was an unmarried breeder of Wheaton terriers, through seeing her you might have guessed Pomeranians,” Philip remarks about a funeral guest. “But her true profession was aggrieved yet devoted daughter, a career she had thrived in for nearly forty-seven years and from which she would never retire.”
The funeral and an old-school book launch party are the novel's two big set pieces, in which Gilbert sends up the New York literati with great attention to detail.
But “& Sons” most concerns itself with the damage fathers unconsciously inflict on their male offspring. “Fathers seem to start as gods and end as myths and in between whatever human form they take can be calamitous for their sons,” Gilbert writes.
In addition to Philip, who spends his time trying to insinuate himself into the Dyer clan, there are the Dyer boys: Richard, a recovering addict and would-be screenwriter with two kids; Jamie, a sometime documentarian who managed to extend adolescence well into middle age; and teenage Andy, who is at the boarding school his dad and Charlie attended and where his father's first novel was set.
This time around, Dyer is trying to do it differently, which is to say he's pitifully reliant on his youngest son's good opinion and opts for a combination of approval-seeking and guilt trips that are painful for the 17-year-old to be around. Gilbert weaves in letters and postcards between the young Andrew and Charlie, as well as quotes from Dyer's novels, most notably “Ampersand,” the book that made his reputation. (Gilbert has said in interviews that he's based Dyer on J.D. Salinger, if the reclusive writer had never left New York for that cabin in Cornell, N.H.)
“It was as if a turncoat had taken 'A Separate Peace' (the previous favorite and only a few years old) hostage and tortured it and brainwashed it until it emerged from the darkness as a less forgiving version of 'Crime and Punishment,'” Gilbert writes of Dyer's boarding school tale, which shares certain elements with "Lord of the Flies."
Dyer, who hasn't written anything new in years, is in the process of faking a first draft of “Ampersand” to increase the value of his collected writings to a museum. The origins of that novel and the school days of Charlie and the original Andy form the back story of the book.
Gilbert is very clearly swinging for the fences with “& Sons,” which is a big, literary novel in every respect. Not everything works – there's a science fiction premise buried about 200 pages in that will startle a reader almost as much as it does the other characters. And the women, while possessed of more common sense and hand-eye coordination than the hapless males whose lives they order, are mostly relegated to the periphery.
More effective are the set pieces and the homages to New York institutions like J.G. Melon, the restaurant made famous in the Dustin Hoffman-Meryl Streep movie, “Kramer vs. Kramer.” “Let Melon's still stand instead of that artisanal Asian tea boutique that now anchors that corner,” he writes in perhaps the closest thing “& Sons” has to prayer.
Teenage Andy, exhausted by trying to avoid his father's neediness, figures that sons have been disappointing their dads for thousands of year. He wonders if "Jesus was once a supreme embarrassment to his Father, this hippie carpenter who ran around with the freak crowd until finally in his thirties he gave up on his dreams and stepped into the family business, probably to his mother's regret."
In addition to pondering the nature and cost of success, “& Sons” questions which is more psychological scarring: to secretly regard one's father as a failure or to be the ordinary offspring of a “great man.” In this moneyed, rarified world, the chance at a Choice C is hard-won indeed.