When someone uses the term “instant classic,” I typically want to grab him and ask, “So this is, what, like the new Great Expectations? You sure about that?” But David Gilbert’s novel & Sons, seductive and ripe with both comedy and heartbreak, made me reconsider my stance on such a label. & Sons feels deeply familiar, as though it existed for decades and I was just slow to find it. Revolving around a New York writer of J. D. Salinger-like fame and reclusiveness, & Sons is about fathers and sons and the complications and competitions between them, all set within the world of East Coast preppy privilege. It has a twist with a tantalizing hint of science fiction and a devastatingly poignant ending. This is the book I’d most like to lug from one beach to another for the rest of summer, if only I hadn’t torn through it in two very happy days this spring.
The main character is 79-year-old A. N. Dyer, “unknowable” to his adoring public despite having been a literary celebrity since the publication some 50 years ago of Ampersand, his debut novel set at a prep school modeled on Phillips Exeter Academy (where virtually every major character in & Sons went or goes to school). Ampersand was a literary sensation along the lines of The Catcher in the Rye although, unlike Salinger, A.N. Dyer — or Andrew as he’s known — never vanished from the publishing world and produced many novels after Ampersand. Andrew is beloved, but not at all interested in being beloved; sometimes he wishes he’d gone into advertising.
I thought I was over my craving for all things Salinger-related after reading Joyce Maynard‘s memoir At Home In the World, the story of her creepy May-December romance with Salinger when she was 18 (and looked 13) and he was 53. The new twist Maynard’s story put on his love of the precocious didn’t so much as dampen my affection as turn a fire hose on it. A. N. Dyer is a distant father, a curmudgeon and not exactly a picnic, but he’s a lot warmer and fuzzier than Jerry Salinger. And I realized, plowing through & Sons with delight and a sudden desire to reread The Catcher in the Rye, that some early literary obsessions never entirely go away.
The book opens at a funeral, with Andrew giving a eulogy for Charlie Topping, his best friend since childhood. Gilbert starts with a good joke: the famous writer is at such a loss for words and so uncertain of what Charlie really meant to him that he buys a pre-written eulogy off the Internet. Andrew is a Vicodin-popping mess of existential dread; his middle son, Jamie, describes him as “all mortal coil” to his older brother, Richard. Richard himself is a recovering drug addict who lives in Los Angeles and has been avoiding Andrew for most of the last two decades. A third son, their half-brother, Andy, 17, is the most obvious source of the rift. Family lore has it that Andrew impregnated a young Swede who then died in childbirth and left him infant Andy. The news destroyed Andrew’s marriage to Richard and Jamie’s mother, Isabel, but the famous novelist is devoted to young Andy. Or obsessed with him.
The narrator is Charlie Topping’s son, Philip, a 40-something failed novelist and lousy husband and father, who admits to being unreliable as a narrator. All you really need to know about Philip is that he wishes desperately that he were A. N. Dyer and would settle for being one of his sons. Instead he’s Andrew’s godson, an outsider-insider whom Jamie and Richard have always treated as a clinger-on. When Jamie and Richard were teenagers they played a prank on Philip they dubbed No Soap Radio, in which they invited him to get high, swapped in some fake weed and then waited to mock him for thinking he was high when he wasn’t. They haven’t outgrown the tendency to such cruelties. Philip hasn’t outgrown the accompanying resentment.
The diverting subplots include forays into Hollywood — Richard has aspirations to become a screenwriter, but can’t pull it off with reconciling with his father and Jamie, a once promising documentarian, almost inadvertently makes a film that becomes an Internet sensation. But & Sons is foremost a novel of New York. Gilbert has written two great set pieces, one involving teenagers in pursuit of the perfect pretzel in Central Park and the other at a wildly indulgent book party at the Frick, packed with snobs, sycophants and a movie star who dreams of starring in Ampersand: The Movie. These scenes play off each other as mirrors of two mythic Manhattans, one the “real” thing that speaks to everyday joys available to all comers, the other steeped in the kind of rarified glamor that so many equate with New York. Gilbert’s portrait of the city and its literary set is as smart and savage in its way as Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, half love letter, half indictment, and wholly irresistible.
Mary Pols reviews movies for Time Magazine and Time.com and blogs on the MSN Page-Turner books blog. She is the author of the memoir Accidentally on Purpose: The True Tale of a Happy Single Mother.