David Gilbert’s & Sons is nothing short of a literary triumph, the kind of work that reinforces just how powerful and entertaining a well-written novel can be. It’s densely plotted, with multiple stories-within-the-story, and the characters emerge as both comic and tragic in subtle and surprising ways. Reading this book, I did something I haven’t done with a novel since high school: I actually stopped and saved the last 50 pages for another day, just to stay with this book—and these characters—a little longer.
& Sons (Random House, $27) is the story of two families—the Dyers and the Toppings—whose lives are as intricately entangled as two strands of DNA. Andrew Newbold Dyer is a literary lion; as A. N. Dyer he won the Pulitzer Prize for his debut novel, Ampersand, and continued building his reputation with the books (Here Live Angry Dogs and Brutal Men, Tiro’s Corruption, American Ligature, The Bend of Light) that followed. A legend of Salingeresque proportions, Dyer has suffered from writer’s block since the birth of his son Andy, the product of a marriage-ending affair that distanced Andrew from his two older sons, Richard and Jamie, and his ex-wife, Isabel. Andy is now 17 and on the same prep school path as his father and older brothers.
The book’s narrator, Philip Topping, is the youngest son of A. N. Dyer’s “oldest and dearest friend,” Charles Henry Topping. The book begins with the elder Topping’s funeral, as Dyer struggles with his eulogy duties. Philip—a genial and wholly unreliable narrator—is divorced from his wife, Ashley, and estranged from their two children, thanks to an affair with a J. Crew employee. He accepts an invitation to stay at Dyer’s home until he regains his footing, which places Philip at the center of Dyer’s family drama.
Richard—a former drug addict—is a substance abuse counselor trying to make it as a screenwriter who needs to secure the film rights to Ampersand to further his own career. Jamie is a filmmaker, whose most recent effort is a grim viral video of his late ex-girlfriend as she succumbed to cancer. Dyer wants his older sons to connect with Andy, and as he attempts to bring his family back together (his three sons, his ex-wife), it’s Philip who reveals the grand manner in which everything fell apart.
Personal cruelties abound in & Sons, and the heartless prank at the center of Dyer’s Ampersand is loosely based on some long buried, unresolved feelings between Dyer and Charlie Topping. Gilbert has loaded the novel with parallel storylines, clever word play and lengthy passages from Dyer’s fiction, all of which add considerable depth and texture to the novel.
Death comes too early in & Sons, and all the apologies come too late. In creating Philip, Gilbert has given us a failed writer who sees the world through a writer’s creative lens. As a result, it’s not always clear if Philip is reporting actual events, or fashioning his own story from overheard conversations and wishful thinking. Ultimately, it’s just one of many wise choices Gilbert made while writing & Sons.
There may not be a lot of happy characters in & Sons, but Gilbert will make a lot of readers happy. It’s brilliant, it’s accessible and it’s destined to be a classic. ★★★★★