& Sons by David Gilbert
Published by Random House
Publication date: July 23rd 2013
Genres: Book Clubs, Fiction, Contemporary, Literary
David Gilbert’s & Sons is one of the most complex books I’ve read in a long time. By this I mean the plot did not appear until just shy of page 200 and I found most of the main characters to be unsympathetic throughout. For those who must sympathize with literary characters (The Woman Upstairs drama), stop now. If brilliant prose (Reality, already taking on water, capsized even further…) and unexpected insight are enough, then & Sons is a marvel. On the surface it could be a fictionalized look at the life of J.D. Salinger, with echoes from The Catcher in the Rye in the work of the protagonist, A.N. Dyer, but it goes much deeper, mining material from the subterranean tunnels of the male relationship, be it father-son or friends.
A.N. Dyer is the reclusive author of a series of American classics and an icon to readers. He has two grown sons, Richard and Jamie, from his marriage and a teenage son, Andy, from a brief affair, which effectively ended his marriage when his mistress died and he brought the boy home to his family. The book begins when he is 79, attending the funeral of his closest friend, Charlie Topping.
He’s also been recreating the original draft of his breakthrough novel, Ampersand, for sale with the rest of his papers to the prestigious Morgan Library. He’s doing this because he burned the original drafts but won’t admit it. The recent events, combined with going back to his first novel, bring the past, with all its recriminations and regrets, to the forefront of his faltering mind. He asks his sons to come and visit because he needs to talk to them. Jamie and Richard are skeptical but obey, only to hear news that is so fantastical as to be unbelievable. And yet, given what is known of Andrew and Gilbert’s gift for sly foreshadowing, it is not improbable. It is left to the reader to decide if it is the ultimate gesture of grandiosity and self-love or an attempt to fix the past. In the present, this is a man whose parenting skills have left one of sons believing
…his father’s quiet yet aggravated labor, and when Jamie in his later teens, early twenties, sat down and read all the books with older eyes, they were better than any bullshit father-son bonding even if he only grasped half of what was being said, which became clearer over subsequent readings and opened up deeper understandings and engendered a different kind of awe—how funny and smart his father could be, how human, how moral…they spoke to Jamie and he knew they would continue to speak to him, the author a far greater father than the man.
And Sons is told between two points of view, the first person, as played by Philip Topping, Charlie’s son, who is a teacher (or was until his life flamed out due to a foolish affair) and the third person, allowing us into the minds of everyone else. Initially, Topping’s place in the scheme of things is vague but as the novel progresses and the plot builds he is shown to be integral to the reader’s interpretation of events. In addition to different points-of-view Gilbert mimics the challenge of communicating between men by slipping from past to present within the page. Men like to say women are difficult to understand but this mechanism means the reader has to lean in and pay close attention to get to the meat of the matter, as it is often thrown out as an afterthought or memory.
I finished & Sons two days ago and am still picking the book up and rereading passages. By the halfway point, I felt nothing but aggravation towards these men who came off like cheap coffee—a bitter brew of resentment, envy, and testosterone. Andrew and his sons are so angry yet, given the luxury of their boarding school lives and comparative wealth, it is hard to understand why. But as the past is revealed we see that some things never change, that fathers pass down traits to their sons that they may not have intended or would never have wanted their children to pick up. This is the case for both the Dyers and the Toppings and it keeps them entangled in a co-dependency that brings out the worst in all of them. There is little that will happen in the novel to redeem these men, especially Andrew who seems to glory in the unspoken belief that everyone in his life is fodder for his work, to the point of exposing something delicate and intimate without thought to anyone involved. Likability is not an option, but in their final scene, Richard does come to an understanding about his father.
…his father, his dad—Didi, he used to call him when he was eight—was incapable of reaching across that divide, the distance simply too frightening, the chance of slipping too great, and to blame the man for this, to hate him for this, would be like blaming or hating someone because of what they feared.
Whether this is more or less than the man deserves is a matter for discussion, another indication that Gilbert has done his job well and produced a thought-provoking novel guaranteed to engender conversation and dispute. And Sons will elicit a response one way or another.
So much happens to us without our knowing. People might talk about us, whisper and judge, and those whispers and judgments are forever in our company, a groundless shadow.