David Gilbert’s new novel ‘& Sons’ will be one of the best novels published this year. Yes, I said it. And obviously you can trust me, my taste is impeccable (in all facets, no?). My narration and advice is never unreliable (unlike the narrator in this novel). I’ve not steered you wrong yet, except for the few of you who hated The Sisters Brothers (unfortunate, but true).
Hoary, reclusive, Salingeresque New Yorker A. N. Dyer is approaching the end of his life. We meet him when he’s attempting to eulogize his closest and perhaps only friend Charles Topping. He fails miserably, crying out for his youngest son Andy. However, Andy’s nowhere to be found. Andy is 17 years old and determined to lose his virginity, so he sneaks out of the funeral to meet an online acquaintance and inadvertently (though gleefully) misses his father’s breakdown. This is Andy (and yes, he plays a charming game of “You Find Me, You Fuck Me” in one of the memorable scenes in the novel, he’s inveterately horny).
A. N. Dyer, writer and patriarch (in that order), wrote one of the Great American Novels, ‘Ampersand’. He is also the father of three sons. Andy, as mentioned above, is the youngest – conceived in an extramarital affair that destroyed Dyer’s first and only marriage to Isabel. Then there is eldest son Richard, a recovering drug addict who fled to the sunny coast of California, refusing to speak to his father again. The guilt-ridden middle son is Jamie, a struggling would-be filmmaker. Jamie films the tragedies of the world, but refuses to release any of his footage. Instead, he lives off his trust fund, hence the guilt. One odd film of his accidentally goes viral. Narrating the novel is Phillip, son of Charlie, and long admirer of the Dyer family. As the former target of Richard’s bullying and Jamie’s overcompensating good nature, Phillip can’t quite move on. Instead, he destroys his marriage, gets fired from his job, and attempts to ingratiate himself in the Dyer household. Phillip is all knowing, but as he bears witness to nearly none of the events he describes, how much does he really know?
When I struggle to write a review, as is the case here, I revert to my preferred method of handling challenges. Listmaking. Here are ten reasons you should pick up ‘& Sons’ immediately.
10. Unreliable narrators are always excellent when done well, as is the case here. Phillip Topping is a modern day Nick Carraway, a witness to the Dyer family, but never an integral, accepted part of it.
9. It’s a gritty love letter to New York City.
8. If John Irving calls the writing gorgeous and the story terrific, you know something good is going on. And like Irving, Exeter (Phillips Exeter Academy) significantly influences all the male characters in this novel. (Not an Irving fan? How did you end up here?)
7. Irving’s right, the writing is gorgeous. Additionally, the novel’s structure is brilliant.
6. The novel explores all the dysfunctional appeal of messy father-son relationships in empathetic detail. ‘& Sons’ touches on the importance of place, of family, and of making art. As someone who has never had a relationship with a father, nor closely witnessed a lifelong one between a father and son, I found the realistic quality of the relationships exasperating and touching – much like it might be in life.
5. There’s a bit of unexpected science fiction that appears about half-way through the book. You’ll know it when you read it.
4. This quote: “Despite the college-worn earnestness, I understood the motivation: the almost incandescent urge for the dreadful thing. When you are a decent person and you have grown up safe and comfortable, with parents who themselves have grown up safe and comfortable, in New York, no less, the Upper East Side of New York, no less, you often find yourself admiring the poor and desperate around you as if they are somehow more honest, more legitimate, than your tribe, Buddhists to your Capitalists, and you want to prove yourself conscious with a capital C by dipping into that hardship – lower – that degradation – lower – that self-abasement. There is liberal guilt and there is liberal sin, where you go slumming, the most cheerful of vagrants. I know I was guilty of this.”
3. It uses a novel within a novel to reveal secrets of the past. Surprisingly, it does so quite successfully.
2. The novel ambitiously explores the violent swings in life, love, writing, success, failure, jealousy, guilt, and death. To Gilbert’s credit the novel is neither clichéd, nor farcical (despite some Shakespearean tragedy).
1. Because I said so? Assuming that is not a valid read (and it’s not), than because I do believe it will be one of the best novels written this year. The characters may not be entirely likable, but they have undoubtedly, indelibly been imprinted on my memory for the foreseeable future (Andy, in particular). As an added bonus, you bear witness, fictionally, to the skewering of the New York literary scene.
I’ve now given you ten reason to read ‘& Sons’* by David Gilbert. Will you take my advice and read it? It’s up to you, but I hope so. 5/5.
When attempting to eulogize his childhood friend Charlie, all Andrew can remember is that Charlie love bacon. He’d put bacon on anything. As this novel is set in New York, I am recommending bacon on pizza (Tomato, Bacon, Basil Pizza to be exact). Again with the pizza, you say? I hear you, but I crave pizza with the same intensity as Michelangelo (with the brain of Donatello). I realize the TMNT reference dates me, but it’s nonetheless true. Although there may be a whole slew of new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fans with Michael Bay’s upcoming movie (therefore no longer revealing myself as a child of the late ’80’s)… In regards to Bay’s version, I’m trying to quell my sense of impending doom.
*I received a review copy of this novel in exchange for my honest opinion.