David Gilbert seems largely unfazed by the online kerfuffle regarding the title of his terrific second novel & Sons.
“I heard a little about it after the fact,” Gilbert admits during a call to his office on the ground floor of the Greenwich Village apartment where he lives with his wife and their three children, ages 11, 10 and almost 5. The issue is that “&” as an opening character refuses to show up in Internet searches, which could mean that online book buyers will miss a chance to read one of the best novels of the year.
But Gilbert was never asked about and never considered changing the title. “I remember walking around New York and seeing these ghostly building signs—‘. . . & sons’—and wondering, who are these sons? The ampersand is essential to the title because it evokes the idea of a family trade, the sense that there is the family business of family and you’re kind of stuck in the business.”
In truth, & Sons is less about family per se than it is about fathers and sons: biological fathers and sons and literary father figures and their progeny. A.N. Dyer, the novel’s central character, is an aging, reclusive New York writer whose first novel, Ampersand, was a coming-of-age story about upper-crust prep school boys. An instant bestseller with enduring appeal, the book lofted Dyer into the literary stratosphere. He became a famous writer and, alas, a lousy father—at least to his two older sons, Richard and Jamie, who are in their 40s (like David Gilbert himself) when the novel opens. The disruptive arrival of a third child, Andrew, who is 17 when & Sons begins, gives A.N. Dyer a chance for a paternal do-over. And the death of Dyer’s lifelong friend and butt of his literary oeuvre, Charles Topping, causes him to anxiously bring his alienated tribe back together in Manhattan for one weird week. Add to this the fact that this whole oddly exhilarating tale is unreliably related by Philip Topping, a failed writer who has issues of his own with his recently departed father and with A.N. Dyer & sons, and you get a novel with layers upon layers to contemplate, savor and laugh about.
"I think laughing with a book is as intimate as crying with a book."
Gilbert, who enjoyed early success in collaborative screenwriting ventures—most notably the Sundance pick Joshua—thinks of A.N. Dyer as a combination of J.D. Salinger, Thomas Pynchon and a “Philip Roth-like character with the WASPy background of John Updike, who takes his life and spins it into fiction, in some cases burning bridges because of that.”
The roots of the novel, Gilbert says, lie in an unpublished short story that included a character who was a sort of footman-biographer to a great writer, and in an experience Gilbert had when listening to a talk by his father, former chairman of the investment bank Morgan Stanley.
“My dad is this impressive guy, but he’s also kind of unknowable; he is this naturally intimidating figure,” Gilbert remembers. “I was sitting at an event with a really old friend of his who had grown up with him. As he was starting his remarks, she turned to me and said she was always amazed to see my father in these situations because as a teenager he was so incredibly shy and awkward. And I thought, wow, that was never the way I saw my dad. My impressions of him have not changed in 45 years. But if I had seen him when he was 17, he would seem a totally different person. That’s where & Sons started to spin.”
In & Sons, Gilbert—who graduated from Middlebury College, then escaped west to the University of Montana to earn an MFA in fiction writing and returned to New York reluctantly, pulled by his need to reconnect with the woman who would be his wife—also pays homage to Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The novel’s central character, his sons and their cohorts circumambulate this heady, mostly privileged realm. Most of the novel’s action takes place in vividly described apartments and hotels of the Upper East Side, on the eastern edge of Central Park, and at the lovingly rendered Frick Museum. Sense of place is usually thought of in terms of Faulkner’s South or Stegner’s West, but, strange as it seems, Gilbert’s & Sons argues for an Upper East Side sense of place.
“I have a love-hate relationship with New York and the Upper East Side,” Gilbert says. “My wife and I grew up within 12 blocks of each other. In the 1970s we carried mug money, and we certainly got mugged all the time. Coming back to New York in the 1990s felt like a defeat. But it is my home. I go up to 73rd and Lex, and it’s still the place I think incredibly fondly about. It has changed a lot over the last 30 years. But it’s still a place that makes you bump up against a lot of people you wouldn’t normally bump up against. It puts you in situations that are uncomfortable and new. I loved growing up in New York.”
What holds & Sons together sentence by sentence is its sense of humor. Despite its characters’ difficult or persnickety personalities and the psychological pain of the father-son relationships, the novel is frequently laugh-out-loud funny.
“I was the youngest child, and my currency was to make my siblings and, particularly, my mother laugh,” Gilbert says. “My mother has this great laugh. So growing up, my goal was to make her laugh. I’m too much of an introvert to ever be a comedian. But in writing I am always going for the laugh. I think laughing with a book is as intimate as crying with a book. It pierces that private element of reading a book, and it’s magical when it works.”
Gilbert’s & Sons has the magic. It will make you laugh. And it will make you think.