NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY
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“[A] big, brilliant novel.”—The New York Times Book Review
Who is A. N. Dyer? & 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.
Look for special features inside. Join the Random House Reader’s Circle for author chats and more.
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.
NATIONAL BESTSELLER • A NEW YORK TIMES EDITORS’ CHOICE
“Big, brilliant, and terrifically funny.”—Jess Walter, author of Beautiful Ruins
“Smart and savage . . . Seductive and ripe with both comedy and heartbreak, [& Sons] made me reconsider my stance on . . . the term ‘instant classic.’”—NPR
“A big, ambitious book about fathers and sons, Oedipal envy and sibling rivalry, and the dynamics between art and life . . . [& Sons] does a wonderful job of conjuring up its characters’ memories . . . in layered, almost Proustian detail.”—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“[A] smart, engrossing saga . . . Perfect for fans of Jonathan Franzen or Claire Messud.”—Entertainment Weekly
“Audacious . . . [one of the year’s] most dazzlingly smart, fully realized works of fiction.”—The Washington Post
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
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About the Author
David Gilbert is the author of the story collection Remote Feed and the novel The Normals. His stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, GQ, and Bomb. He lives in New York with his wife and three children.
Read an Excerpt
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 . . .
What People are Saying About This
Advance praise for & Sons
“Remember The Imperfectionists? This book is like that but one thousand times more amazing. Impossible, I know. & Sons by David Gilbert is the one book you must read, if you read a book in 2013.”—Jason Rice, Three Guys One Book
“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, author of Beautiful Ruins
“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
“& Sons is not just a great book—maddeningly smart, mercilessly funny—it is, in all the ways that matter, a large one; it contains multitudes. Gilbert writes of fathers and sons, sons and lovers, the legacies of love and remorse we bestow on one another, the concentric rings that genius generates, with a fearlessness that allows him to go where he must and a talent profound enough to bring home the slipperiest contradictions, the hardest truths. The result is an often hilarious razor-cut portrait of the twenty-first-century emotional diaspora in which we live, and perhaps the finest rendering of creation and its discontents since Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus.”—Mark Slouka, author of The Visible World
Reading Group Guide
A Conversation Between David Gilbert and Curtis Sittenfeld
Curtis Sittenfeld is the bestselling author of four novels, Sisterland, American Wife, The Man of My Dreams, and Prep. Her books have been translated into twenty-five languages. Visit her website at www.curtissittenfeld.com.
Curtis Sittenfeld: The narrator of & Sons is a peripheral character. I love this choice, but it’s also surprising. What made you select the narrator you did rather than going with a more central character or just using a third-person omniscient point of view?
David Gilbert: I always knew I wanted to write the book in the first person but, in a tricky way, a sort of omniscient first person who by dint of his omniscience is unreliable. That’s Philip Topping. I have a soft spot for unreliable narrators, in the subtext they can generate, in the extra work the reader has to do in order to glean the “truth” of the story, in the pure fun of their uncertain claims; I also have a soft spot for outsiders peeking in through the glass, seeing a world they’re desperate to inhabit. In this book I wanted to have this question hang in the air: Who is the author of this story? Is Philip Topping truly in control? Does he have the artistic chops? If not him, then who? I wanted a certain kind of narrative shimmer, if that makes sense.
CS: Given that the focus of the novel shifts among a few characters, I’m wondering if you have a special fondness for anyone. In many books, the author’s favorite is obvious, but you’re very even-handed in making everyone flawed yet endearing.
DG: A. N. Dyer was a favorite, mainly because of his crankiness, which was enjoyable and perhaps all too natural to inhabit. Intelligence unhinged is always interesting and allows for particular flights of fancy through time. Plus it was fun to create all those unwritten novels, three hundred pages condensed into a paragraph or a line. The Andy sections were also a blast, what with the straight-ahead definition of his desire and the riff-like quality of his mind. And at the end of the day we’re both seventeen, only I’m wearing the mask of a forty-six-year-old.
CS: Although the book is primarily about fathers and sons, I admired your believable and well-rounded female characters, especially Jeanie Spokes. Do you have any favorite female characters created by either male or female novelists?
DG: I’ve always been a tremendous fan of Lily Bart and Isabel -Archer, which is appropriate since their creators had such a deep friendship. I also love Matilda, especially from reading the book to my girls. And there’s Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing. And Emily Dickinson, who seems like a character of her own creation. And all the women in Housekeeping. And . . .
CS: The novel includes a few dramatic plot twists, especially one at the end. Did you always know what was coming or did you surprise yourself as you were writing?
DG: I had things pretty well mapped out when I started and understood the route of the plot, the ups and downs and sharp turns. But there were smaller moments that surprised me, like when Pale Male, the red-tailed hawk in Central Park, suddenly flew into the book, as did a poem about an owl, and a certain statue at 70th and Fifth Avenue, and the Von Trapp Family Singers, and how much a pretzel resembles an ampersand, which resembles a strand of DNA, and the prologue and the epilogue—those small moments of discovery can be quite novel-affirming, an unexpected detail that opens up the story and confirms you are on the right track (forgive the pun).
CS: A. N. Dyer reveals a bombshell to his adult sons, who don’t entirely believe him. Do you want readers to believe Dyer’s claim, or did you intentionally leave it open to interpretation?
DG: Hmm, how to answer this, Curtis? I certainly have my opinion, though I do want it to remain open to interpretation, but since whoever is reading this has likely read the book (and by the way, thank you, and if you are skimming the back in your local bookstore, I highly recommend The Flamethrowers and Black Swan Green and Skippy Dies and Sisterland too). I can say that I think A. N. Dyer is quite unstable at this point and he is merely weaving another tale, another piece of fiction that he hopes somehow will bring his family back together and forgive his past and ease his future. He is a professional storyteller, after all.
CS: I can’t resist asking: What’s your opinion of J. D. Salinger in general and The Catcher in the Rye specifically?
DG: The thing about J. D. Salinger—the weird thing, once you’ve read the short stories and The Catcher in the Rye—is that he sort of becomes part of you, maybe because of the age in which you access his writing, those late teen years when you yourself struggle between the poles of public and private, which often invert, so that you can feel alone among friends or totally in touch with the pulse of the world locked up in your room, and Salinger writes to this, hears our call, and also fulfills our own immature dream of mammoth success followed by the fantasy of dying while still alive, of being present at our own funeral (hello, Tom Sawyer), of feeling beloved from a self-imposed distance, without the complications of actual contact and possible compromise—Salinger is adolescence, and reading him today is like watching a home movie as directed by a master: it is artful, often wonderful, but sometimes I have to look away, sometimes the sentiment is too awkward, too trapped in a sense of self-absorbed unfairness. Did I really look that way back then? I think the lack of material has done Salinger a favor. That said, I reread The Catcher in the Rye every few years, mainly to see how I have aged.
CS: Another reason I admired this book is that the New York it evokes simultaneously feels authentic and insiderish but not off-puttingly smug. (I say this having never lived there.) I believe you grew up in New York and live there currently, and I’m curious about your relationship with the city. Have you lived elsewhere? Did you worry at all that non–New York readers might miss some of the book’s references?
DG: I have a strange relationship with New York. It is my hometown. I have lived in other places for stretches of a few years, but I always seem to find myself back in New York. I married a New Yorker. I am raising little New Yorkers. I still live on the Magic Mountain that is Manhattan, unable to escape even to Brooklyn. I am doomed. And New York has changed from the New York of my youth. (Wait a sec while I put on my Old Crank hat.) New York oozes with money now, like an infected open wound. Oh, there has always been money flowing through the bloodstream of this city, but today it feels different, today it feels stifling, apocalyptic even, the walking dead of the rich. That said, there are still the museums (though art nowadays is equated with cash), and there is the theater (which on average costs around $100 per seat), and many movie houses (mostly playing blockbusters) and great restaurants (don’t get me started). Still, there is a surviving culture here, and by that I mean the culture of the street and the subway, the park, the packed-in people, the blunt edge of close inhabitation mixed with the collective cause of being trapped and toughened and oddly dependent on one another to remain cool, i.e., New Yorkers. There remains a self-generating energy, a great grand orgy of everyday desire. I could only leave New York for Berlin or Paris or Rome, Madrid maybe, but I don’t speak those languages. I speak New York. And I hope in this novel, no matter where you’re from, you can understand the words.
CS: The title of this novel is simultaneously perfect and kind of awkward, especially to say aloud. Did you have reservations about giving your book an unwieldy title?
DG: It was always going to contain an ampersand. The title kind of dropped in fully formed. And I twisted much of the novel around that shape, in the obvious narcissistic reflection in A. N. Dyer’s name, and in his first novel, Ampersand; even in the titles of his subsequent books, there is a hint of an ampersand. Growing up I also remember seeing old ghostly advertisements on the sides of building, often with only an “& Sons” visible, the father faint and undecipherable. So I was totally committed to the title and its lack of a solid foundation.
CS: Did you use any particular strategy for writing the sections of the book that are “excerpts” of A. N. Dyer’s novels? Did you feel pressure, given that these novels are supposed to be iconic?
DG: Like I said before, that was actually fun. I could write a whole novel in a snippet without the hassle of plot and character development and pages and pages of actual painstaking writing. It was different with Ampersand since there’s a large chunk of that novel contained within the book, and it’s so beloved and acclaimed by its readership (it won a Pulitzer, after all). I just kind of held my breath (and at times my nose) and dove in. I had the whole internal novel pretty well mapped out, to the point where it seems like I’ve written it. But it does set up as an easy target: This is meant to be great? Yeah, right. But I understood that going into the project, that there was that danger, and to be honest, it was thrilling to take on the challenge.
CS: This is your third book. What do you know now about writing and publishing that you didn’t know before your first?
DG: Unfortunately, not a lot. The first blank page is always a mystery. Maybe when I first started writing I disparaged plot, thinking it a hack’s course, but nowadays, we novelists have to compete with so many other easier (and frankly wonderful) entertainments, we need to remember the basics of story and plot and forward momentum and character and, most important, the pleasures to be found on that once blank page. We need to prove ourselves worthy of the most precious commodity: time.
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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.
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!
I loved this book. Great dialogue, very insightful, poignent. If you don't "get" this book, you're way too functional (as opposed to dys). My e-highlighter ran out of ink on this one...however...don't want to oversell it, decide for yoyrself. Highly recommend.
Found myself picking this up and putting it back down several times. The writing could be a bit tedious but the story was terrific. Glad I stuck with it.
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.
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.
A brilliant novel of fathers and sons. Some parts dragged but it was worth reading on. ~*~LEB~*~
I can not stay with this book . Im dissappointed because i had high expectations.
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.
Too cerebral for me. The characters were very good. I was hoping for some humor after reading the description, but my search proved futile.
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.