At the center of the many characters and plot lines in David Gilbert’s new novel & Sons is an aging New York novelist named A.N. Dyer. Dyer’s debut work about young men in a Northeastern boarding school is an American classic, beloved by almost all who read it, most of whom do so as teenagers. Dyer has been deeply secluded in his New York apartment for years (in the opening scene at a funeral, some attendees have brought books to try and get signed). He has been in trouble for a dalliance with a much younger woman. And within 25 pages he has referred to someone as a “sporty bastard.”
The parallels to J.D. Salinger here are obvious. There are other touches throughout the book. Characters crying at the natural history museum. “Fuck You” scrawled on a ceiling. A rain-soaked scene of emotional release at the Central Park carousel. One character, Jeanie Spokes, who works at Dyer’s literary agency and handled correspondence to the famous author, seems to be based on a woman who worked at Salinger’s literary agency and handles letters to the famous author. Dyer’s live-in nurse Gerd bears a passing resemblance to Salinger’s last wife Colleen, a nurse.
But & Sons is not a novelization of the imagined life of J.D. Salinger, and the famously reclusive author is only the most well-represented of several literary fathers here. The presence of boarding schools and certain ambiguities carry echoes of A Separate Peace. With all the drugs, sex, depression, infidelity and internet, we get Franzen and his unhappy families. I detect but can’t confirm a certain amount of Biblical allegory: specifically, fallen angels who resent God’s love for those who were “created in his image.” I can confirm elements of Marcel Proust, who did literature’s best work on the disappointments of meeting a beloved author in the flesh. & Sons also follows In Search of Lost Time in using a narrator with unexplained and seemingly limitless access to conversations and emotional states to chronicle the decay of a privileged set, and Proust’s characters even appear in costume at one point. I suspect there are others I’m missing.
But the true patron saint of the novel is Nabokov, the sacred text being Pale Fire. The story of & Sons is told through the eyes (and imagination) of Phillip Topping, whose family history is knotted with the Dyers’ in both privileged and painful ways. Topping is an embittered worshiper who has idolized both A.N. Dyer and his sons from boyhood into adul
teryhood (ahem), but received no reciprocal affection. He carries deep resentments with his yearning fascination, and while his storytelling seems fairly straightforward for a while, one starts to see shades of Zembla in Topping’s Upper East Side as things in the book get strange.
I won’t say what the strange things are — and I may be giving Gilbert the benefit of the doubt by blaming the most questionable and least interesting parts of the book on his narrator. But that is only because of the gap between how good so much of the book is, compared with how unnecessary other parts of it seem. & Sons puts a lot of ideas to work in its pages, and they never coalesce in a meaningful way.
There are powerful individual scenes: the youngest Dyer son, stoned and running through the Met to find Jeanie, who has made herself the prize of a flirty scavenger hunt, shows Gilbert at full strength. The writing honors its high-lit surroundings, but adds something fresh and urgent. Searching the artworks, the young man becomes more and more distracted from his horny buzz, sinking pleasantly into a slow, almost post-coital feeling of sublime awareness. The moment is comic and poignant at once.
Unfortunately, too many other chapters take sharp turns down dead-end paths. The novel I want — about the prodigal father and his aching sons; about the realities faced by famous authors and their families; even just an imagined glimpse at the last years of J.D. Salinger’s life — kept getting lost. By the end of the book, the Dyer affairs have faded into the background of a separate resolution, which is meaningful in and of itself, but not tightly connected to the previous 400-or-so pages.
Relatively early in the story, a Los Angeles movie producer says that keeping a distance from New York allows him to “relax enough to hate the world with a tremendous amount of affection.” Gilbert seems unable to pull off the same trick in this wonderfully readable but ultimately rudderless novel. Only occasionally does he slow down enough to reveal the tremendously affectionate hatred that defines so many great New York stories, and so many family stories, and that is somewhere, hidden, at the heart of this story as well.
– Michael Moats