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& Sons is a literary masterwork for readers of The Art of Fielding, The Emperor?s Children, and Wonder Boys?the panoramic, deeply affecting story of an iconic novelist, two interconnected families, and the heartbreaking truths that fiction can hide.
The funeral of Charles Henry Topping on Manhattan?s Upper East Side would have been a minor affair (his two-hundred-word obit in The New York Times notwithstanding) but for the presence ...
& Sons is a literary masterwork for readers of The Art of Fielding, The Emperor’s Children, and Wonder Boys—the panoramic, deeply affecting story of an iconic novelist, two interconnected families, and the heartbreaking truths that fiction can hide.
The funeral of Charles Henry Topping on Manhattan’s Upper East Side would have been a minor affair (his two-hundred-word obit in The New York Times notwithstanding) but for the presence of one particular mourner: the notoriously reclusive author A. N. Dyer, whose novel Ampersand stands as a classic of American teenage angst. But as Andrew Newbold Dyer delivers the eulogy for his oldest friend, he suffers a breakdown over the life he’s led and the people he’s hurt and the novel that will forever endure as his legacy. He must gather his three sons for the first time in many years—before it’s too late.
So begins a wild, transformative, heartbreaking week, as witnessed by Philip Topping, who, like his late father, finds himself caught up in the swirl of the Dyer family. First there’s son Richard, a struggling screenwriter and father, returning from self-imposed exile in California. In the middle lingers Jamie, settled in Brooklyn after his twenty-year mission of making documentaries about human suffering. And last is Andy, the half brother whose mysterious birth tore the Dyers apart seventeen years ago, now in New York on spring break, determined to lose his virginity before returning to the prestigious New England boarding school that inspired Ampersand. But only when the real purpose of this reunion comes to light do these sons realize just how much is at stake, not only for their father but for themselves and three generations of their family.
In this daring feat of fiction, David Gilbert establishes himself as one of our most original, entertaining, and insightful authors. & Sons is that rarest of treasures: a startlingly imaginative novel about families and how they define us, and the choices we make when faced with our own mortality.
Advance praise for & Sons
“David Gilbert’s & Sons is that novel you’ve been waiting for without knowing you were waiting. Big, brilliant, and terrifically funny, it’s a moving story about fathers and sons and success, a dead-on, deadpan retelling of our American literary myth.”—Jess Walter
“I like novels about novelists, and surely everyone is a sucker for a story that begins at the funeral of a childhood friend—especially a funeral with such a sense of foreboding (‘we would all return to this church’). & Sons is not an easy novel to describe without giving too much of the story away. Why would the first-person narrator need to defend himself from ‘charges of narrative fraud’? Why is a seventeen-year-old Exeter student—the product, we are told, of an affair that ended the novelist’s marriage and estranged the writer from his older sons—likened to ‘a small boy overboard, possibly drowning’? Yes, the writing is gorgeous—not only the prose but the power of David Gilbert’s observations. ‘All things have a second birth,’ Gilbert writes, and later, ‘We all have something to steal.’ And have I mentioned, without giving it away, that this is a terrific story?”—John Irving
“Informed by observation and memory rather than aspiration and fantasy, & Sons is a New York novel written by an actual New Yorker. David Gilbert is smart, funny, and empathetic, but most important, possessed of a true literary sensibility that is seasoned, not seasonal.”—Fran Lebowitz
“Gilbert’s should be among the half-dozen or so names cited by critics and serious readers when they’re asked who produced [the year’s] most dazzlingly smart, fully realized works of fiction.”—The Washington Post
“A grand book, even extraordinary.”—Lev Grossman, Time
“If you read only a few books this year, this one should be one of them.”—The Huffington Post
“Clear the sand from your beach-book-overloaded mind for this smart, engrossing saga about a reclusive famous author and his late-life attempt to make amends to the many people he’s let down. Perfect for fans of Jonathan Franzen or Claire Messud.”—Entertainment Weekly
“A contemporary New York variation on The Brothers Karamazov, featuring a J. D. Salinger–like writer in the role of Father, and a protagonist who turns out to be as questionable a tour guide as the notoriously unreliable narrator of Ford Madox Ford’s classic The Good Soldier . . . a big, ambitious book about fathers and sons, Oedipal envy and sibling rivalry, and the dynamics between art and life, talent and virtue. The novel is smart, funny, observant and . . . does a wonderful job of conjuring up its characters’ memories of growing up in New York City in layered, almost Proustian detail.”—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“[A] throwback literary novel . . . Its rueful, poetic vision of faded WASP grandeur is frequently heartbreaking.”—People
“Very nearly a masterwork. Gilbert is an assured, versatile and often very funny writer.”—The Dallas Morning News
“Throughout & Sons, Gilbert provides lengthy excerpts from [his] novel-within-a-novel, and, as far as the reader can tell, Ampersand is caustic, comic, and clever, like Gilbert’s own novel. . . . Gilbert has a rich theme, and plenty of talent. He has a wonderfully sharp eye for the emotional reticence of the men of A. N. Dyer’s generation and class, for the ways in which their more open, more voluble children must become expert readers of patriarchal gaps and silences, in order to make sense of what he finely calls ‘these heavily redacted men.’ . . . Gilbert often writes superbly, his sentences crisp, witty, and rightly weighted. . . . Some of [his metaphors] realign the visual world, asking us, as Nabokov’s best metaphors do, to estrange in order to reconnect. . . . Every page proposes something clever and well turned. Gilbert is bursting with little achievements. . . . This is a writer capable of something as beautifully simple, and achingly deep, as this description of Richard and Jamie, as they see their mother approaching them in the pub: ‘The brothers straightened, reshaped as sons.’”—James Wood, The New Yorker
“This great big novel is also infused with warmth and wisdom about what it means to be a family.”—The Boston Globe
“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. . . . 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. . . . Gilbert’s portrait of [New York 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.”—NPR
“In her iconic essay ‘Goodbye to All That,’ Joan Didion famously described New York City as ‘the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself.’ . . . David Gilbert’s layered & Sons probes that nexus from the inside, limning the emotional decay of two prominent Manhattan families and literary masterpiece that cages them. . . . Vivid, inventive.”—O: The Oprah Magazine
“Gilbert has great narrative gifts and a wonderful eye for the madness of families and the madness of writers. . . . & Sons is a novel that creates an imaginary author who is so real and flawed that the reader feels he understands American literature itself a little better after reading his story.”—Los Angeles Times
“Richly entertaining . . . has the rare quality of being funny without being silly, serious without being solemn, and powerfully moving without being either sentimental or coercive.”—The Guardian (UK)
“The right novelist can turn even a novel about a novelist into a book big enough to delight all the rest of us.”—Salon
“A Franzenish portrait of a biting, aging New York writer, David Gilbert’s novel is perceptive, witty, and—like all great books about remote fathers and their sons—prone to leaving male readers either cursing or calling their dads.”—New York
“A thought-provoking and engrossing read . . . I found myself falling into [the characters’] lives, caring for them, worrying for them and ultimately missing them as the novel came to a close.”—Chicago Tribune
“& Sons is a sophisticated, compassionate novel, very much more than a clever take on the vicissitudes of the writing life. Funny and smart, it is lit with the kind of writing that makes the reader break into a smile.”—Financial Times
“Gilbert’s finely wrought prose . . . teems with elaborate word plays and tests the reader’s perceptiveness at every turn.”—Vanity Fair
“A delicious read.”—New York Daily News
“If the stylish brilliance of recent novels by Rachel Kushner, Jess Walter, and Peter Heller has been hinting at a new golden age of American prose, then David Gilbert’s ambitious, sprawling, and altogether masterful second novel, & Sons, confirms it.”—The Daily Beast
“A work of pure genius.”—The Buffalo News
“Extraordinary.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“A witty and ultimately tragic take on the perennial subject of how the sins of the fathers are visited on their sons. There are echoes of Turgenev here, to say nothing of Jonathan Franzen and John Irving. But the music is entirely Gilbert’s, and at the end of this bravura performance you'll want to give him a standing ovation.”—Newsday
“Brilliant . . . weaves together the frayed threads of fame, fatherhood, family and friendship into a meditation on the blessing and curse of creativity . . . Thoughtful, farcical, acerbic and original, Gilbert’s crisp writing and sinuous mind could grab and hold any reader.”—Bloomberg Businessweek
“[& Sons is] about the emotional bonds between fathers, sons and brothers—the overwhelming love that can’t be adequately expressed and the burden of unspoken expectations. . . . Gilbert is an inventive, emotionally perceptive writer.”—Associated Press
“Celebrates the power of words . . . thick with wit and close observation . . . [& Sons is] built to last.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“& Sons conjures a career’s worth of drool-worthy fictional fiction that’s so convincingly evoked, I almost recall writing a paper on it in freshman English class.”—The New York Times Magazine
“[A] big, rich book . . . With wit and heart, Gilbert illuminates the complicated ways that fathers and sons misunderstand, disappoint, and love one another and how their behavior affects the women in their lives.”—Real Simple
“& Sons is an often funny, always elegant, lingering gaze back at a world in which writers are still gods at the very center of culture.”—Esquire
And there he sat, up front, all alone in the first pew. For those who asked, the ushers confirmed it with a reluctant nod. Yep, that’s him. For those who cared but said nothing, they gave themselves away by staring sideways and pretending to be impressed by the nearby stained glass, as if devotees of Cornelius the Centurion or Godfrey of Bouillon instead of a seventy-nine-year-old writer with gout. Rumor had it he might show. His oldest and dearest friend, Charles Henry Topping, was dead. Funeral on Tuesday at St. James on 71st and Madison. Be respectful. Dress appropriately. See you there. Some of the faithful brought books in hopes of getting them signed, a long shot but who could resist, and by a quarter of eleven the church was almost full. I myself remember watching friends of my father as they walked down that aisle. While they glimpsed the Slocums and the Coopers and over there the Englehards—hello by way of regretful grin—a number of these fellow mourners baffled them. Were those sneakers? Was that a necklace or a tattoo; a hairdo or a hat? It seemed death had an unfortunate bride’s side. Once seated, all and sundry leafed through the program—good paper, nicely engraved—and gauged the running time in their head, which mercifully lacked a communion. There was a universal thrill for the eulogist since the man up front was notoriously private, bordering on reclusive. Excitement spread via church-wide mutter. Thumbs composed emails, texts, status updates, tweets. This New York funeral suddenly constituted a chance cultural event, one of those I-was-there moments, so prized in this city, even if you had known the writer from way back, knew him before he was famous and won all those awards, knew him as a strong ocean swimmer and an epic climber of trees, knew his mother and his father, his stepfather, knew his childhood friends, all of whom knew him as Andy or Andrew rather than the more unknowable A. N. Dyer.
All this happened in mid-March, twelve years ago. I recall it being the first warm day of the year, a small relief after months of near-impossible cold. Just a week earlier, the temperature sulked in the teens, the windchill dragging the brat into newborn territory. Windows rattled in their sashes, and the sky resembled a headfirst plunge onto cement. After a long winter of dying, my father was finally dead. I remember standing up and covering his face, like they do in the movies, his bright blue socks poking free from the bottom of the comforter. He always wore socks with his pajamas and never bothered to sleep under the sheets. It was as if his dreams had no right to unmake a bed. I went over and opened both windows, no longer cursing the draft but hoping the cold might shelter his body for a bit. But on the day of his funeral, the city seemed near sweltering, even if the thermostat within St. James maintained its autumnal chill, the Episcopalian constant of scotch and tweed.
Churches are glorified attics, A. N. Dyer once wrote, but now he resembled a worshipper deep in prayer—head lowered, hands crammed against stomach. His posture reminded me of a comma, its intent not yet determined. People assumed he was upset. Of course he was upset. He and my father were the oldest of friends, born just eleven days apart in the same Manhattan hospital. Growing up, this minor divide seemed important, with Andrew teasing the older Charlie that he was destined to die first—it was just basic actuarial math—and Andrew would bury his friend and live his remaining numbered days in a glorious Topping-free state. “The worms and creepy-crawlies will eat you while I swig champagne.” This joke carried on until the punch line became infused with intimacy and what once made young Charlie cry now made him smile, even toward the end. “You really are milking this,” Andrew muttered during his final visit. “I’ve had the bubbly on ice for a month now.” He sat by the bed, like a benched player witnessing an awful defeat. My father was no longer speaking. That bully with the scythe straddled his chest and dared him to breathe, c’mon, breathe. So Andrew decided to give his friend the last word by leaning closer and stage-whispering in his ear, “This is where you tell me to go look in the mirror, with all my pills a day and my ruined joints and unsalvageable lower midsection; this is where you point and say with the awful knowledge of those who go first, ‘You’re next.’ ” Andrew was rather pleased with this comeback. He wondered how far back his dying friend could reach, if apologizing was worth all the dragging up, but really he decided the important thing was that he was here, A. N. Dyer in the flesh, today’s visit no small feat considering the state of his big toe. It had been a two-Vicodin morning. Charlie for his troubles sported a morphine drip. “Just look at us,” Andrew started to say when Charlie’s right hand took unexpected flight and flopped like a dead bird onto Andrew’s knee. His fingernails were thick and yellow, and Andrew recalled from his more macabre youth the keratin that keeps growing after death, which raised his eyes to that weedy Topping hair and how in the coffin Charlie would miss his monthly trim and turn bohemian, like Beethoven conducting his own decay. Unnerved, Andrew gave his friend a gentle pat. His own hand seemed hardly any better. Then Charlie tried to speak, he tried and tried—clearly he had something to say—but all meaning remained locked up in his throat and what rattled free sounded like one of those cheap Hollywood scarefests where the living transform into the contagious undead and you had best run. To his credit, Andrew refused to look away. While he was obviously upset, he also seemed embarrassed, perhaps more embarrassed than upset, as if dying involved a humiliating confession. Please let me go, he probably begged to himself. Release me. After a minute of listening to this hopeless rasp he interrupted by saying, “I’m sorry, pal,” and he placed his hand on Charlie’s chest and kissed him softly on the head. That was good enough, right?
Charles Henry Topping earned a respectable if pictureless two-hundred-word obit in The New York Times—lawyer, philanthropist, trustee, world-class decoy collector, and lifelong friend of the novelist A. N. Dyer, who often wrote about the blue-blooded world of the Toppings and the Dyers. Wrote? I’m sure Andrew marveled at that particular choice of tense. It likely surprised him that my father even warranted a mention in the Times. How little a life required nowadays.
The church organist played the last of the Mendelssohn prelude.
Andrew curled farther forward in his pew, as if pressed by the world behind him. If only Isabel were here. She would have known what to say. “Enough thinking about your miserable self.” She could cut through him like no other. All day yesterday Andrew had sat over his IBM Selectric and found little to recall about his friend except that he liked bacon, liked bacon tremendously. Charlie could eat a whole slab of it. BLTs. Bacon burgers. Bacon and mayonnaise sandwiches. Liver wrapped in bacon. Disgusting. Of course there was more to say (after all, the Times managed two hundred words) but it seemed that so much of the Dyer-Topping friendship was based on those early years when action trumped language and bacon was as profound as anything. Since birth their relationship was as fixed as the stars. That was a large part of its charm. Like many men who keep friends in orbits of various length, a month, six months, a year might pass without talking and yet they could pick right up again, unfazed. The two of them were close without question so why bother searching for answers. Talk centered on the trivial, past and present, on summers and schoolmates, those earnest memories of youth, while the stickier issues, like disease and divorce, death and depression, occurred on the subatomic level: they had their fundamental effect, their important interactions, but they had no identifiable consequence when having a pleasant meal together, a meal likely pushed upon them by their ever-attentive wives.
Charlie sure loved his bacon.
Andrew removed the eulogy from his suit jacket.
How can I read this crap in public? he wondered. How will I even manage to climb the lectern without my gout igniting a thousand crystal-cracking explosions? My bedrock is nothing but chalkstone. From his pocket he retrieved then popped his just-in-case Vicodin, the lint-covered backup to his post-breakfast Vicodin. Just swallowing the pill seemed to hurt, as if ground‑up glass were part of its pharmacology. The organist approached her tonal amen. Behind the altar loomed that massive golden screen with its carved miniatures of important church figures, once memorized by Andrew and Charlie during their Sunday school days, with that cow Miss Kepplinger insisting on a metronomic recital of names—St. Polycarp, St. Gregory of Nazianzus—a pause and no snack for you—St. Michael, St. Uriel—and while Andrew had a strong memory—St. Raphael, St. Gabriel—if old Miss Moo were tapping her clubfoot today—the fifth archangel up top, um, the patron saint of all who forgive, um, the angel who stopped Abraham’s Issac-slaying hand, um—he would have gone graham crackerless. But there was no tapping. Not today. Mendelssohn was done and Charlie was dead and Andrew was a few minutes away from mortifying his more famous self in front of all these people.
Just leave right now, shouted in his head.
Pull the old fire alarm and bolt.
He blamed the whole mess on the second Mrs. Topping, my stepmother. Lucy had the unique ability to corner a person on the phone. “He did love you,” she told him the day after my father died.
“Yes,” Andrew said.
“So so much.”
“So proud to have you as a friend. So proud. Just plain proud of you.”
“And I he,” Andrew said, wondering if he was speaking English or Mandarin.
“And the boys, and Grace, they love you too, like a second father really.”
“Their father was a good man.”
“You have such a way with words. As a matter of fact . . . ”
It was ridiculous, her flattery, or perhaps mockery since her lips often pursed the thinnest of smiles, passed down from a particular brand of suburban housewife who could appear both dense and all too wise, like any service industry veteran. Yet somehow by the end of the conversation the divorcée from Oyster Bay had nabbed her prized eulogist. A goddamn eulogy? What could be worse? Maybe a graduation speech. A wedding toast. Andrew had said yes despite the clearest of professional and private intentions, had said yes despite the fact that his last novel, The Spared Man, was published ten years ago and most of that was cribbed from something he had abandoned twenty years before—since then nothing new from the celebrated author of Ampersand and Here Live Angry Dogs and Brutal Men and a dozen other books, not even a letter of decent length. Sometimes it seemed a vital piece had gone loose in his brain and he could feel the bit rattling around, a temporal gear that had slipped its carriage and no longer stamped thoughts into proper words and sentences. He was, in effect, broken. Often he wanted to jam a screwdriver into his ear. Like last night, in his study: he was sitting at his desk distracted by the recent reissue of his books, with that stupid business on their spines (if arranged chronologically they revealed a red line that traced the peaks and valleys of a cardiogram), which, while clever enough, did not take into consideration the random heart conditions after midnight, the arrhythmias and shortnesses of breath and implied flatlines, the irrational fear of sleep, the old friend recently dead and only a few hours to sum up his life. Four-thirty in the morning and chest-deep in his own grave, Andrew reached for that most loathsome and inguinal of writing instruments, the laptop computer. He lowered himself into the underworld of the Internet. Almost as a lark he did a Google search (was he the only one who noticed in its logo a babyish connotation, a sort of infantile infinite?) for eulogy and help and please. Within an hour he found his Eurydice:
My dear friend,
I am here to offer you my very deepest sympathies for the loss you have recently suffered. In this time of grieving it can seem overwhelming to deliver an eulogy in front of an audience of friends and family and clergy and strangers let alone writing said eulogy with all the care it so obviously deserves and all in a matter of a few fraught days. What can you give but tears? Believe me I know what you are going through. I myself was beyond bereft and scared when my brother-in-law asked me to give the eulogy for my much loved but tragically deceased sister and while I was afraid I might not do the lovely part of her life justice I preserved and there were such good feeling and warmth for my words that since than I have written and delivered eulogies for my father, my cousin, my uncle, two of my aunts, my grandmother, countless dear friends, even poor newborns abandoned I have remembered. If you want to skyrocket your confidence and save precious time and rest assured in delivering a memorable tribute to someone who once meant so much to you, then www.eulogiesfromtheheart.com is the most important website you will visit today. My Instant Eulogy Package will give you everything you need to stand tall with appropriate and meaningful sorrow. Let me help bring forth the loss that is struggling within you.
Sincerely and again with deepest condolences,
Yes, Andrew thought, Emma Norbert understood. Her photo was front and center, her face soft with the sweetest kind of intelligence, even if the eyes were punctuated with too much makeup, like unnecessary quotation marks. But you could tell she was an honest if dyslexic mourner. Emma had the real words while all Andrew had was artifice. Drunk with scotch and swirled with Vicodin, he considered the fourteen books that would stand as his testament, a handful of older critics giving their kind words, a handful of younger critics challenging such weary opinions. Oh Emma, Andrew thought, what would you say about me for $29.99? He plugged in his information, his credit card number, then pushed enter. In five minutes he had his choice of fill-in-the-blank eulogies.
They say that at the end of our time on this earth if you can count a few good friends you are a fortunate person. I know that I am fortunate because I could always count on [insert name] to be the truest friend I ever did know, and today I am sick with despair, doubly sick because [insert name] is not here to repair me with his/her kind words and loving heart . . .
1. First of all, thank you for reading the book. Want to get that out of the way. A big thanks. One of the scariest things a person can tell me is “Oh, hey, I’m reading your book.” It makes me want to crawl directly into the nearest hole. Funny choice of career. Here I’ve published a book with a big-time publisher—dream come true—and the knowledge that someone might actually read my book makes me cringe to the point of splitting in two. I’m cringing now. The other scary thing you can tell me is “Oh, hey, I read your book,” particularly if you tweak the verb with a raised eyebrow, like a hairy umlaut. I might smile in return and say, Oh Great, that’s great, but in reality I’m performing a private Seppuku ceremony, a thousand doubts the blade. Anyway, discuss vis-à-vis A. N. Dyer and ask yourself, “Why would anyone want to be a writer?”
2. It took me six years to write this book, which seems a ridiculous amount of time. I mean, it’s a kind of a long book, but six years long? At best three years, maybe three and a half while also maintaining a full-time gig with Doctors Without Borders. Now A. N. Dyer hasn’t written a truly new book in something like twenty years (forgive the vagueness, but it’s been a year since I actually read this book). Why do you think he’s stopped writing? I have my ideas, obviously. I think it has something to do with the breakup of his marriage—duh—but also with the birth of his third son, the young Andy. Has this boy perhaps taken on the role of fiction? What is Andy’s relationship with fiction in terms of his relationship with his father? Did I just answer my own question? I don’t think I’m very good at this.
3. You know when you go to the theater and you read the Playbill and there are those bios for the actors and the director and the playwright (I love reading those bios)? Did you know that those bios are actually written by the actors and the director and the playwright? You probably did, but for some reason I didn’t, or not until maybe ten years ago. I just assumed there was a national bio database, very official, probably housed in a suburb of D.C., that fact-checked and sourced and confirmed all this professional information. Yes, yes, Patty St. John did indeed play Fastrada in the Tacoma Players’ 2007 production of Pippin. It wasn’t until I started seeing those personalized messages that suddenly became popular—“Ms. St. John would like to express her gratitude to her Chihuahua Chekhov for teaching her how to be human”—that I realized, Wait a sec, these things are actually self-constructed. At first I was shocked. It seemed dubious. And kind of braggy too. How much of this is truly true? But then I found myself digging into these credits, not only to suss out a career but also to suss out a person, and suddenly a deeper appreciation began to emerge from those handmade bios. A trajectory. I mean, how do we compose our lives for public consumption? What do we say? And where are the divergences, the betraying tells? Who is composing who? Or is it whom? And does David Gilbert live in New York City or does he live in Brooklyn or in Queens? Is that a question?
4. I don’t normally like books about writers. A writer writing about a writer writing, well, that sentence alone is tedious. I want to read about someone who does something. Like I wish someone would write the great American novel about scuba diving. That would be cool. Shipwrecks. Sharks. Those giant clams and your foot is suddenly caught. There has to be treasure too. We as a nation deserve a fabulous piece of scuba diving literature. But another book about a writer? And an old privileged white male writer at that? I almost feel as if I should apologize. That said, what interested me was the tension between fiction and life and how we twist our own stories to suit our will. I remember in fifth-grade English class the teacher mentioning in Huck Finn the theme of Appearance Versus Reality, underlined twice on the chalkboard, and I was blown away by the notion—yes, yes, appearance versus reality! It was my Matrix moment. My teenage anthem. Like Jake with Chinatown, it explained all things without explaining a thing. It is, after all, the mother of all themes and introduces by far the most interesting element of any decent piece of writing, the subtext. So: What is the subtext of & Sons? Sorry, that’s a terrible question.
5. Okay, how about this: Who is telling the story? And how is he telling the story? Is this an act of autobiography or an act of fiction, and is there a difference between the two? I mean, we have the one narrator and then we have each chapter divided into three separate character-driven parts (and here I have to acknowledge Richard Powers since I essentially stole that structure from him—a really useful structure by the way, if you’re ever looking for structure—and Philip Roth’s Zuckerman books in the way Zuckerman jumps into other people’s heads yet always remains distinctly individual). I guess the question is: How good a writer is Philip Topping? Also, a follow-up: What writer is the biographer of your life? (For me, it’s Charles Schulz.)
6. Why all the Wizard of Oz allusions? Seriously. I think a lot of readers assume that the writer has relative control of his/her text, but I can tell you that that simply is not true. I mean, that’s not true either, and no need to bring up Derrida or any of the deconstructionists, please God no, though during the eighties I used to say Paul-De-Man instead of You’re Da Man (and got just as many laughs), but in all seriousness, I wrote a draft of this book and looked over it and saw all of these Wizard of Oz references, which I then burnished since it seemed so odd and unexpected and must mean something. So tell me about Dorothy. And Kansas and Oz. Who is the Wicked Witch?
7. Is this tedious?
8. Why did I write this book? Finally, a question for me. I wrote this book because I have a son and a father and I myself am a son and a father and this funhouse mirror effect has been interesting, to say the least. Raising children is an act of love as well as an act of fiction in which the characters slowly free themselves from the supposed author. I remember being scared about having a boy. There seemed so much pressure involved. How would I teach someone how to be a man when I had no idea how to be a man myself? My own father is a wonderful guy, very impressive, an intimidating figure to me when I was growing up, as well as bit distant. He himself was the product of a strict family, raised by a stepfather after his own father’s early death. Anyway, my dad had a successful career in banking, and I remember when I was in my early thirties and just starting my own family, I was at an event and my father had to get up and say a few words and he was as always confident and charming, a commanding presence, and this old friend of his was sitting next to me and she leaned over and said, “It really is amazing, seeing your dad in these situations, so comfortable and at ease, considering how painfully shy he was as a boy. I mean, he could barely look you in the eye and had a bit of stammer. Amazing, the transformation.” Now this surprised me. I’ve always known him as a reserved and self-contained man, a bit unknowable, but never as a shy and awkward boy, and so I remember imagining: What if I could meet him when he was younger, say seventeen? How would my impressions change? That was the impetus behind & Sons. Hence this follow-up question: What if you could meet your father when he was five, or ten, or fifteen, at the height of his vulnerability? How would your feelings for the man change? We all reinvent ourselves with our children.
9. Let’s talk about the book within the book, Ampersand. Go ahead, I’m listening.
10. Okay, the women in the book—I know, what women? But hey, the book’s called & Sons, what did you expect? That said, there are women, in particular Isabel Dyer and Eleanor Topping, and they do play their part. How do these women function within this world of boys (notice I didn’t use the word men)? Does it ring true? I really wanted to make Richard’s wife, Candy, a bigger character and there was a scene in an early outline where she bonded with A. N. Dyer (much to the frustration of Richard), but I couldn’t quite find the narrative space for its inclusion. I’m curious, did I get away with my impersonation of Alice Munro in that Isabel chapter? I’m a fan of her stories and I loved trying to write in her particular style, not just overtly but covertly (and setting some action on a train). That said, is there a deeper purpose to my impersonation? What does it say about the fluid nature of authorship?
11. The novel has a prologue and an epilogue, though thankfully not tagged as prologue and epilogue since I myself always skip prologues and epilogues. I’ve never understood their purpose. Just start the book and end the book. I’ve never read a prologue and said, “Wow, now that’s a great prologue.” And an epilogue is like that awkward encounter with a friend after you say goodbye and depart down the street in the same direction. “Oh, yeah, hey [awkward laugh].” That said, I am guilty of writing a prologue and epilogue (italicized, no less). For me to stoop to this shame, there must be a reason . . . I hope.
12. Does Phillip Topping work as a narrator? I mean, yeah, he’s kind of unreliable, (unreliable narrator is like Subtext 101), but do you believe him? I know, I know, I just said he’s unreliable, but how much of what he says is believable? The same with A. N. Dyer. I know, I know, A. N. Dyer is being filtered through Phillip, his biggest fan, who at the same time is trying to channel A. N. Dyer—so many layers of fiction. I guess the question is: Who is the dog and who is the tail?
13. Do you like the letters? Regardless, they look great. The Random House interior designers did an incredible job to create that sense of reality. That was very important to me, to maintain a tight grip on the real, just like all the locations in New York and beyond are very real places, the same with the schools. That reality was key. Why do you think I cared so much? Sometimes I think of A. N. Dyer as a spider who has spun his web in the corner of these realities, a beautiful and intricate construction, lovely to behold, and not once does he think of the poor creatures who blindly fly into these traps and find themselves stuck and immobilized, a sudden character in one of his dramas. What stories do you tell yourself about your own life that you know are untrue, those exaggerations that have become fact? How much of who we are is what we steal? And if fiction can bring a family together, do we care about the truth?
14. If you called someone up and told them to come find you in front of your favorite work of art, where would you be standing?
15. With Richard in the beginning, when he’s at the movie studio and feels as if his dreams are about to come true, Richard playing the fantasy forward and then discovering, too late for his ego, that he has misread the situation, can you relate to this mortifying situation? I certainly can. I once thought a girl was madly in love with me but actually she was in love with my best friend—wait, is that me or a movie I saw? How much of our memory is collage?
16. Dream Snap is an anagram of Ampersand. Do those kinds of games interest you? If they do, play on.
17. When I started & Sons I wrote a single word on a Post-it note and stuck it to the wall in front of my desk. What was that word? Five dollars to anyone who guesses right.
David Gilbert has created a modern masterpiece. The writing leaps off the page. The characters are all so incredibly well defined it reads like you are reading about real people. I highly recommend this book.
3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 6, 2013
This book was awful. It was hard to read, hard to follow, and hard to believe. Save your money. I have never written a negative review, but had to for this one.
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Posted July 24, 2013
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Posted December 10, 2013
This is clearly intended to remind us of J. D. Salinger and others of that great genre. The author of a "Catcher" like novel is now old and has relationship problems with everyone. Examines the family dynamic and relationships with three very different sons. Very well written and engaging story.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 11, 2013
When I started reading this book I was not sure if the author was serious. It was laughing out loud funny. But I don't think that was the intention. No other review seemed to have that impression. I would not recommend this book. Stodgy pseudo intellectuals in the North East making fools of themselves. Would have been better if the author tried another genre. The book seems somewhat senile like the characters.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 6, 2013
probing, witty, inventive, exploratory, revealing....humorous, touching, thought provoking, tragic.....new york, manhatten, central park west....fathers, sons, brothers, men....and the women that cared for them....boarding schools and houses that are not homes....literary genius...literary mediocrity.....heights and depths of anxiety.....from the sky to the grave....from the birds to the bees....you name it....this book has it all.....a real read.....enjoyed it!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 23, 2013
I am a member of two book clubs. We have read some outstanding books over the last 10 years. This was not one of them. You can't read this book leisurely. You have to work at it, take notes, create a cast of characters. Sort out the "BS" from the probable facts. More importantly, you need to keep reminding yourself who the narrator is ( I'm not going to tell you). How much does his opinion color the narrative??? Finally, I believe this was an act of trying to write "stream of consciousness" prose...an abject failure!! It still has to track. I give one star and I feel I'm being overly generous.
We haven't me to review this book yet. no matter what the others say, you can't change my mind.
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