Tuesday, January 28, 2014

& Sons: A Novel by David Gilbert (2013)

I got this copy of & Sons: A Novel by David Gilbert (2013) through the LibraryThing EarlyReviewers program and it has finally risen to the top of my constantly growing to read pile.

This is a tale of men. New York men. Wealthy, literary, intelligent, New York men. At the center of the novel is A.N. Dyer, a famous novelist who is beloved for his first novel, Ampersand, a Catcher-in-the-Rye-esque novel he wrote when he was 27. He is now an old man with a long publishing career, a broken marriage, two grown-up and mostly estranged sons, and one teenage son whose appearance, 17 years ago, was the cause of that broken marriage.

Riding on a parallel track is Dyer's best friend from childhood, Charlie Topper, and Charlie's son, Philip, who has spent his life admiring the Dyer family and being paid back with a mix of indifference (from the senior Dyer) and cruelty (from the two older sons, Richard and Jamie).

Gilbert does a fine job of laying out the complicated past of the Dyer and Topping families, jumping seamlessly from past to present, and in and out of the narrative voices of the five primary men (along with a brief narrative piece from the estranged wife, Isabel, which honestly feels pretty out of place). The plot lets us explore the difficulty of aging, of being a teenager, of having sons, of relating to a father, of getting laid, of staying clean, and of being a famous writer. It also gives us a pretty clever novel within the novel with the plot and passages from Ampersand. What it doesn't give us is any insight into how the ever-present but never developed female characters relate to this twisted narrative.

Gilbert isn't alone in this macho New York genre of broken men held up by solid, admired, lusted after, practical, and completely one-dimensional women, but that doesn't make me respond any more warmly to another one of these books. That isn't to say that the novel isn't entertaining, or that Gilbert isn't good at what he does, just that what he does isn't really what I want to read. Saying you will like this if you like this kind of thing is a bit of a cop out, but I can't think of any other way to put this. Gilbert is good at this kind of thing, and if you like it, then this would be worth picking up.

Archivists note: There is a pretty great aside where Dyer and his agent go to the Morgan Library to negotiate the purchase of his papers, where the archivist and director throw in some barbs at the HRC as their main collecting competitor. There is also a juicy attempt by Dyer at recreating his original manuscript for Ampersand, which he burned years ago, just before the publication of the novel, but which is a key piece of his literary legacy and something the Morgan direly wants (and will pay big bucks for). I love thinking of the archival implications of this self-forgery...

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