Two families enjoying the money and privilege associated with Manhattan’s Upper East Side are indelibly connected by one member’s literary fame -- acquired by using friends and kin in his fiction.
In his brilliant second novel, “& Sons,” David Gilbert reunites these families for a funeral and in the space of just a few days exposes what has lain for years below their facades.
He does this with vibrant prose and literary legerdemain. There’s another novel pervading “& Sons,” as well as a variety of texts -- e-mails, handwritten letters, an edited manuscript, a screenplay -- that carry vital information, push the plot and post apt reminders that writing is everywhere. Add to these: wordplay and allusions, and a comic sensibility that can handle cruelty and sadness without getting mawkish.
For a glimpse of the fun, let’s take the almost afterthought title “& Sons.” Once a common suffix on store signs, the term implies legacy, though absent the patriarch here. The famous father/author in the book is the reclusive A.N. Dyer, whose initials translate the symbol ampersand.
Dyer at 79 enjoys a Salinger-size renown built largely on his first novel, titled “Ampersand” and set at a prep school modeled after Phillips Exeter Academy, which Dyer and his sons, as legacies, attended.
The book’s title also carries forward a slight joke from Gilbert’s debut novel, “The Normals,” in which the head of a debt-collection agency called Ragnar & Sons confesses that there are no Sons in the business. Miraculously, Gilbert drops a real chemical engineer named Ragnar Sohlman who worked with Alfred Nobel into the description of an unreal but crucial cloning project in “& Sons.”
The story is told (though his voice is prominently absent for stretches) by an utterly unreliable narrator named Philip Topping, the son of Dyer’s Exeter classmate Charles. The elder Topping was abused for his adulation of Dyer pere (a victimizing taken further in “Ampersand”) -- as Philip was bullied by Dyer’s sons while at Exeter.
Philip himself offers a convoluted caveat: “Before charges of narrative fraud are flung in my direction, let me defend myself and tell you that A.N. Dyer often used my father in his fiction.” Late in the book he will refer to “the deformed heart of an ampersand.”
Philip has been forced to leave his family and his teaching job because of an affair discovered just before his father’s funeral, which opens the book. He is staying, uncomfortably, at Dyer’s duplex as the writer’s sons, Richard and Jamie, arrive after a long estrangement and come to know their father’s third son, 17-year-old Andy, thought illegitimate but in fact another Dyer creation, from DNA.
If you’re keeping track, the cloning means that teenage Andy is genetically identical to Dyer and so is father to those who seem to be his much older brothers.
Gilbert plays often on such confusions as he weaves together the frayed threads of fame, fatherhood, family and friendship into a meditation on the blessing and curse of creativity. So we find Dyer forging a first draft of “Ampersand” to boost the sale price of his papers to the Morgan Library. A teacher at Exeter is pressuring Andy to bring his famously reclusive father to the alma mater.
Richard must get his father to sell the movie rights to “Ampersand” to guarantee a production deal for his own script. In a hilarious book-publishing party held at the Frick Collection, Gilbert has a ball with fame as he gathers five Dyer males, plus book agents, Hollywood executives and an actor keen to play the “Ampersand” lead.
Thoughtful, farcical, acerbic and original, Gilbert’s crisp writing and sinuous mind could grab and hold any reader -- with the possible exception of a reader seeking a strong female character. There simply are none, although Dyer’s ex-wife has her moments. We’ll have to wait for “& Daughters.”
There also are, less surprisingly, no happy characters, unless you look back many years and just outside the novel’s pages, where you’ll find exceptions ever so briefly in the young Dyer family as Daddy weaves the bedtime story and its postscript that bracket the book. “He was at his fatherly best at these moments,” Gilbert has Dyer say in telling afterthought while he remembers a promise never kept:
“The next book I write is for you, he said. And their faces lit up, and as always his wife was thrilled. Yes, yes, that’s a wonderful idea.”
“& Sons” is published by Random House (434 pages, $27). To order this book in North America, click here.
(Jeffrey Burke is an editor with Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include John Mariani on wine and Greg Evans on TV.