A great many writers — including, I suspect, the author of this novel — make it their life’s work to produce that elusive masterpiece that will secure them an eternal place on college syllabi and All-Time Best lists. A.N. Dyer, the fictional J.D. Salinger-like writer at the center of David Gilbert’s & Sons, achieved that distinction on his first go-around with Ampersand, which made him a sensation at the age of 27.
Gilbert focuses not on that blaze of early genius but rather on the casualties of lifelong, towering success. & Sons opens as Dyer, now a reclusive 79-year-old legend, makes an embarrassing scene at the Manhattan funeral of his boyhood friend Charlie Topping. Forced to face his own mortality, Dyer looks at his life outside of his literary acclaim, and the view is mostly disappointing: His middle-aged sons — Richard, an ex-junkie screenwriter, and Jamie, an aimless pseudo documentarian — hold him responsible for decades of emotional neglect, while his much younger son, 17-year-old Andy, resents his desperate, clumsy attempts at intimacy. In a last-ditch effort to edit his past, Dyer gathers them and his ex-wife for an impromptu family reunion of sorts, which you know from the opening pages will end in tragedy.
Between the bookish subject and the cranked-up prose, & Sons is Gilbert’s overt bid to join the strata of “serious” authors that include Jonathan Franzen, Philip Roth, Tom Wolfe, et al. But it’s more than a vessel for witty metaphors, impressively long sentences, and insidery jabs at the New York literary scene — although there’s no shortage of any of those things. Gilbert examines a wide range of human messiness (fatherhood, divorce, fame, narcissism, betrayal, addiction, adolescence, death) and tackles tricky devices (an unreliable narrator, a novel-within-a-novel, handwritten letters, subplots galore, a bizarre twist 200 pages in that borders on science fiction) with admirable fearlessness and captivating, if sometimes overreaching, style. & Sons isn’t quite Gilbert’s Ampersand, but it’s good enough to give you hope that he has one in him. A-