Review: '& Sons' by David Gilbert

An artful, engaging novel about a novel – and its less than perfect creator

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The Independent Culture

Last year Greg – son of Saul – Bellow released a memoir about life with his father. Bellow Jr described Sr as a man who “chose a life of  singular literary purpose and a lifelong pattern of selfish conduct that he could neither deny nor completely bury”.

Greg Bellow’s dad was a father with devotion to one cause – his work. For the children of all prolific writers, the abiding motif of their memories is probably a closed door. The pace of a click-clacking typewriter the key indicator of mood.

It is that familial suffocation in the face of immense talent that is unpicked with, at times, delicate skill by David Gilbert in his second novel & Sons. Here, in AN Dyer, he has created a literary paterfamilias of such texture that this exploration of his relationship – or lack of – with his sons feels at times like a non-fictional account of one of those great 20th-century writers.

Gilbert’s Dyer is a Pynchon-like recluse, hiding in plain sight in a grand, dusty apartment in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He’s also a semi-prolific Salinger, whose coming-of-age tale, Ampersand, shares a space on school curriculums with Catcher in the Rye. Dyer’s novel, the story of a juvenile kidnapping gone awry even inspires its own version of Bloomsday at its real-life private school setting “where on May 4 an upper year student is whisked away by five seniors”. Despite having written barely a sentence of note for years, Dyer remains a figure of fascination in New York literary circles.

After the death of Dyer’s lifelong friend Charlie Topping, we meet, through the murky narration of Topping’s son Philip, the Dyer boys: two estranged adult sons and one much-younger 17-year-old, the result of a disastrous affair. It’s his friend’s passing – and a decline in his own health – which encourages Dyer Sr to call his sons back from  Los Angeles and Brooklyn to tell them a secret about their younger half- brother so odd that they, and we, aren’t sure if it’s true, his imagination or  the narrator’s.

Topping Jr, himself in the midst of a crushing divorce, ends up briefly moving in with the writer and acts as a Nick Guest or Nick Carraway figure, complicit in events, but removed enough to capture the disruption.

The title of Dyer’s Ampersand lends its name to Gilbert’s own title. It isn’t just & Sons in the Steptoe sense. It’s about three sons whose only insight into what their quiet, moody father thinks is through words he wrote in the book &. [Even Dyer’s initials ‘AND’ spell out the notion that, here, no man is apart]. Dyer is a man who can write beautiful prose, but has had no idea how to talk to his own family, or even the world beyond his apartment. And while that tale of estrangement and reconciliation disrupted by intrigue is enough to carry the reader through 430 pages, what makes & Sons a real pleasure is its tone.

Gilbert has the most fun with imagined chunks of Ampersand. When Eric Harke, an actor with aspirations to take its lead character Edgar Mead onto the big screen (of course Dyer won’t grant the rights), reads its first page – “You know those games, sir, that start off innocently enough, or almost innocently enough…” – we’re cast into an easily imagined fiction of campus intrigue. Even the titles of Dyer’s back catalogue betray the joy of assigning titles to non-existent texts, The Spared Man, Here Live Angry Dogs and Brutal Men, American Ligature…

And while that could feel indulgent – a book about a rich, white, male writer and his universe – it never feels it. Although, after the early creation of Dyer’s world, past and present, there’s a lurch in pace in the final third which feels slightly off-kilter at best, or dissatisfying at worst. But, frankly, it’s a minor quibble – & Sons feels like a writer, or possibly even two, coming of age.

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