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David Gilbert’s ‘& Sons’ is a work of pure genius


& Sons

David Gilbert

Random House

434 Pages, $27

By Aidan Ryan


Perhaps the most impressive scene in David Gilbert’s “& Sons” comes during a book launch party at the Frick Museum, where nervous industry types make glib remarks on the future of publishing, Brooklyn strivers bemoan teaching gigs and recall their sexcapades with this or that actress (“yeah, yeah, Amazon, yeah, ebooks, sigh, Franzen”), and 17-year-old Andy Dyer, beloved illegitimate son of the aging and irascible author A.N. Dyer, leads his newfound nephew Emmett to the open bar, preoccupied with the prospect of sex with a 24-year-old assistant to his dad’s literary agent and all the while hoping he won’t be asked for an ID.

The episode is crystalline, vivid and apprehensible from any of some half-dozen perspectives. And it’s also brutally funny. We watch a young actor jazzed on faux-cocaine rattle off lines in the guise of the elder Dyer’s most famous character. We are treated to a tour through the solar system of New York publishing, with the inner planets, outer planets and Perseid meteors. We witness a sparring old couple delivering the tired routine of a sparring old couple, as other guests, uninterested, drift away – a moment as sad as it is amusing.

Here, Gilbert has written the sharpest scene of Upper East Side satire since Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities.”

But the book is too full of genuine poignancy and gut-punch pathos to be a simple satire.

Into the Frick walk Jamie and Richard Dyer, the older, legitimate sons of the author. Richard, a former “crackhead” and hopeful L.A. screenwriter, has lately supplied the actor hoping to play his father’s favorite character with what Jamie explains is “Arm & Hammer, Advil Cold & Sinus, a handful of Ambien – I thought you needed some controlled substance in there – Altoids for their curiously strong flavor, a dousing of Anbesol dug up from the bottom of my dopp kit, all of it chopped up and mashed together.” Jamie, clearly, has his own problems to deal with, while Richard spots his son and younger half-brother chasing different stages of inebriation.

Then their father arrives, raving and half-hallucinating, and is immediately put upon for pictures and screenplay pitches.

If this sounds as if it was a difficult scene to write – and it surely was – consider first that every single man in the scene has been estranged from every other, and then that their innermost thoughts are narrated by one Philip Topping, son of the late Charles Henry Topping, A.D. Dyer’s best friend, a character who isn’t present, who every other character at least finds vaguely annoying, and who can’t possibly know any of what’s going on.

Now you begin to grasp the teeming genius of David Gilbert.

In the vast assemblage of fiction writers’ fictional writers, among them Kilgore Trout, Raul Duke, Henry Chinaski and Lemony Snicket, Philip Topping stands among the least reliable; and through Philip, as he constructs the tale, considers his construction, and in writing slips further from product and closer to process, Gilbert makes the point that all of us are the authors of our own lives – and not in the Free Will, Alcoholics Anonymous sense. While it’s easy enough for us to accept that memory is fictionalized, Philip Topping goes so far as to write about A.N. Dyer writing about Philip Topping, and to write a fully formatted miniature screenplay about Richard introducing his family to his father. At the very end, when he asks questions instead of giving answers, dopes himself up on Vicodin and further undermines his reliability, and debates matter of technique and the possible inclusion of irony, the book’s most terrible moment becomes “one of those stories, never told honestly.”

Finally the reader is left with a single truth, that the act of fiction is constant and uninterrupted – that we all sometimes play the role of self-doubting gods; that every act of empathy is first and foremost an act of imagination, and that imagination can be self-serving or self-loathing.

Not every reader wants to open a book and be disillusioned by every bond of family and friendship. And these readers don’t have to worry. The quality of writing is more than enough reason to drop this newspaper and go buy the book.

Gilbert’s descriptions of his characters are, in a word, delightful. A.N. Dyer is a man whose “spirit no longer seemed to reach his extremities but pooled around his torso and only fed the essentials.” His eldest son Richard, meanwhile, “was handsome in the style of generations of handsome men who marry and pass along their handsome genes like pieces of family silver, in a pinch pawnable,” while Jamie “was the mirror that brought back the most alluring aspects of youth and everybody wanted to see themselves in his glow.”

And then there’s the housemaid Gerd, “someone too accustomed to the whims of man, like Eve if she had arrived in Eden first and formed Adam from her own rib, but after three weeks Adam abandoned her, and so she offered up another rib, without condition, and soon enough this second Adam disappeared as well, and so another rib was plucked and she stooped a little bit further hoping this one might take.”

With such a complicated cast, this relatability makes the book a gripping read. Gilbert “gets” what it is to be an aging author trying to make up for a botched fatherhood, a botched marriage, a botched life, who pilfers his loved ones’ emotions with as much aplomb as F. Scott Fitzgerald; what it is to be a son doubting your father’s sanity, or a lonely narrator searching, like so many of us, for a usable past. Other acts of empathy – at its core, every author’s task – are so daring and truly moving that you’ll have to discover their slow and beautiful unfolding for yourselves.

As the title suggests this is, more than anything, a book about fathers and sons; and more specifically about the indirect and sometimes silent ways in which men communicate. This isn’t a book about the Andy Griffith-esque father-son lessons of backyard baseball, true though those may be. Quite frankly it’s difficult to say just what this book is about, though fiction and silence and second and third chances all play a part.

It seems, though, that “& Sons” is a novel – and a great novel - about the fiction of fatherhood, with an introduction both glib and honest, taken from A.N. Dyer’s novel “The Spared Man:” “Sometimes Louis saw in his sons a mirror that reflected the best of who he was and he was in awe; other times he hoped to see nothing of himself and would insist on molding the opposite, by force if necessary. Fatherhood is the bending of that alpha and omega, with the wobbly heat of our own fathers mixed in. We love and hate our boys for what they might see.”

The fiction of fatherhood, of course, goes both ways. And for that reason this is a book to return to as the decades pass, and, as they pass, to pass down, so that the pages might accumulate many shades of ink and so aid other fathers in communicating and other sons in finding their fathers, in that wonderful, silent, deeply flawed way – and meanwhile, to take its place on the shelf of American classics.

Aidan Ryan is a News staff reviewer.