Book review – & Sons by David Gilbert
The first thing that announces this book is the cover, itself almost worth the price. It is an utterly arresting shot of New York, one of most photographed cities on earth, one who you would think has been well worn through pictures, but the image on the front cover is stunning – clean, crowded, gorgeous and coloured from a disturbingly unreal palette.
A great start to this book, even before the first line. It is a quintessentially New York novel, filled with wit and slashing satire and intellectual commentary and comedy and bursting with barely hidden literary references to great American literature. & Sons is destined to nestle with them.
The story is centred around an ageing, and possibly demented scion of American letters, one AN Dyer, hermited in his large and musty upper East side apartment. Dyer is a Salinger-type figure, with a dash of Roth and Bellow, who had, in his twenties, written a novel called Ampersand, a Catcher in the Rye-esque coming-of-age novel which has sold 45 million copies. He has written others, but it is Ampersand that defines him.
The book begins at the funeral of Dyer’s lifelong best friend, Charles Topping, at whose funeral we find ourselves at the opening of the book and whose life had been deeply marred by his friendship with the novelist. His son Phillip Topping is the novel’s narrator, and he is a deft trick, a wildly unreliable interlocutor, who narrates events at which he was absent, and conspires to understands the motives of those around him which he could not possibly understand. He is both despised by almost everyone in the Dyer family, his role in the story is at best, oblique. This is a huge risk for Gilbert to have taken and it plays off handsomely, as the reader continually grapples with the narrator’s perspective and veracity.
The elderly novelist is as towering a figure as I have read in a long while. Irascible, regretful, maudlin, suicidal, manipulative, brilliant, conniving and desperate for redemption, he conspires to summon his two sons from his first marriage to New York, his ex-wife, as well as another son, the provenance of whom becomes a key plot point. Dyer is seeking to apologise and be forgiven for his neglect and deceit before he dies, as well as to reveal the truth about his youngest son. His two older sons have built shaky and damaged lives from the rubble left by their father, and they gather in New York, as does their mother. Things, not unexpectedly, do not work out as planned.
The writing is at times breathtakingly beautiful, and often very funny. There are a number of explosively entertaining set pieces – a gathering of New York’s elite at an art gallery, a cocaine fueled night on the town, a movie pitch in Hollywood, a pretzel hunt in Central Park. Like Tom Wolfe before he, well, lost his touch.
& Sons had the misfortune to be published in the same year as The Goldfinch, or else it may have scooped the Pulitzer, and I think it got a little lost because of the Goldfinch brouhahah. Critics have quibbled with the last third of the book but I found it a great joy from beginning to end, and slipped it happily into my bookcase in the section marked ‘Contemporary American‘ alongside Roth, Updike, Heller, Ford, Franzen and Bellow.
To quote the Guardian critic James Lasdan – ‘this book is funny without being silly, serious without being solemn, and powerfully moving without being either sentimental or coercive’.