Friday, August 2, 2013

“It became one of those stories, never told honestly.”

& Sons
by David Gilbert

I think I was about 7% into David Gilbert’s sophomore novel, & Sons, when I started emailing friends that it was brilliant. That was a pretty snap judgment, but by the time I made it to 100% I knew my instincts about this novel were dead on. Now I’m going to use Mr. Gilbert’s words more than my own in this review, as it quickly became apparent that he is the most delightful sort of prose stylist—smart, sophisticated, inventive. Here, for instance, is how he introduces a character:
“Richard was handsome in the style of generations of handsome men who marry and pass along their handsome genes like pieces of family silver, in a pinch pawnable. Whatever former hard living had colored his face with almost exotic damage, like a psychological tan. He. Had. Lived.”
The novel opens at the funeral of Charles Topping and is primarily narrated by his youngest son, Philip, whose life is in something of a crisis. An extramarital affair has caused the dissolution of his marriage, as well as the loss of his teaching job. Attending the funeral is Charlie’s oldest friend, the legendary, reclusive novelist A.N. (Andrew) Dyer, about whom it is written:
“…his last novel, The Spared Man, was published roughly ten years ago and most of that was cribbed from something he had abandoned 20 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 decent letter of length. 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.”
Upon hearing that Philip is renting a room at a depressing residence hotel, Andrew extends an invitation to stay at his large Upper East Side apartment with himself and his teenage son, Andy. The two families have always been close:
“It seemed that no matter where we were, the Dyers and Toppings were within shouting distance—New York, Southampton, Hobe Sound—brought together by mothers who took the obligation of our fathers’ friendship more seriously than our fathers ever did. I think that these women hoped that the continuation of this history might provide the missing words from these heavily redacted men, as if we might fill in a full and pleasing account of their life together.”
Women are very much secondary in this novel. It is about the complicated and sometimes fraught
relationships of men. And more than anything else, as the novel’s title would suggest, it’s about fathers and sons. The other central characters in this tale are Andrew’s two adult sons, Richard and Jamie, half-brothers to young Andy, as well as Richard’s teenage son, Emmett. This is a family drama, but along the way there is more than a hint of satire of both the publishing and film industries. Much hay is made of the literary trappings.

And then, just when you think you know the story you’re reading, Mr. Gilbert throws in a real shocker from out of left field. As I reader I was like, “Wha…?” But that’s okay, it was a bold choice. It wasn’t the only time that Mr. Gilbert surprised me in the course of this tale. & Sons is wonderfully character-driven, but much happens within its 448 pages. He does not stint on story.

As I read, I reflected that for whatever reason, there are few novels that examine, in depth, the internal lives and relationships of men. Mr. Gilbert has a great sensitivity for nuance, and has created some endearingly flawed and fallible characters. This novel was truly a joy to read and one which it’s a pleasure to recommend.

NOTE: Check out the unusually fun book trailer below.  Brooke Shields gets top billing, but the stalkerish fan featured is the author.  And San Francisco readers, please note the Mr. Gilbert will be reading and speaking at the Book Passage's Ferry Building location on Wednesday, August 7, 2013 at 6:00pm.  See you there!


  1. I saw this somewhere the other day and wasn't sure. Curse you, Susie! Now I've added yet another book to my ever-growing to-read list. Fortunately I restrict my buying, so this will be a library book, another long list. Sigh.

  2. Mwaaa ha ha ha! My evil plan is working!!