It’s no surprise that the featured blurb on the cover of David Gilbert’s & Sons is from Jess Walter, whose Beautiful Ruins blew so many of us away last year. Like Beautiful Ruins, & Sons weaves its magic through a combination of letters, prose within prose, poetry, screenplays, as well as a series of narrative somersaults. The result is a virtuoso performance by a writer who possesses abundant storytelling gifts.
The setting is present day New York and the narrative takes us into the lives of A.N. Dyer and his family, particularly his three sons, Richard, Jamie, and Andy. Each son lives in the shadow of A.N. Dyer, who bears more than a passing resemblance to J.D. Salinger. He’s a literary idol: reclusive, egotistical, manic, and not at all suited for fatherhood. As the novel opens, he is dealing with the death of his best friend, Charlie Topping.
The novel’s narrator is Charlie’s son, Philip, who’s grown up with the Dyers and simultaneously claims both insider and outsider status within this prominent family’s dysfunctional bosom. Philip isn’t terribly sympathetic and comes across as a combination stalker, underdog, and sycophant. Referring to him as unreliable is an understatement. Gilbert frequently keeps you wondering exactly how Philip captures such detailed glimpses into the psyches of the Dyer family, Philip frequently recreating events with abundant embellishments
For example, Gilbert refers to, “a woman, like so many of her generation, who took her cues from Jacqueline Kennedy, to the point where you could imagine all these women the survivors of some public assassination.”
Witness these character descriptions: “…[Andy’s] features seemed lumpy with adolescence, as if every night a pair of fists pummeled him raw.” “…[Isabel’s face was] a series of clean, strong lines, something Matisse might have sketched to infuriate Picasso.”
“Sometimes it seemed a vital piece had gone loose in [Andrew’s] brain and he could feel it rattling around…”
The dialogue is also full of humor:
“I had waffles from Belgium,” Chloe said. “They were beyond delicious”
Emmett rolled his eyes. “Yeah, and I had toast from France.”
“But that’s a lie”
“No,” I said. “That’s life without the f.”
“I know what you can do with that f.”
One particularly compelling and hilarious interlude takes place as Andy and his nephew Emmett take a trip through Central Park in search of the perfect pretzel. In the hands of a lesser writer, this chapter would serve as a pointless digression, but, like so much of this book, this sequence, in Gilbert’s accomplished hands, provides a lot of humor and heart.
Some may gripe about one particular twist midway through the narrative but I admire that Gilbert avoids playing it safe. More novels today should have the courage to venture into unknown territory and risk defying expectations. Gilbert empowers the reader to determine what is factual and what is contrived, to look beyond the surface.
Despite some narrative head scratchers, & Sons sparkles in a way few contemporary novels do. It is a brazen, beguiling, mature work, one that will fully engage you and absorb you in its witty, bighearted prose and all-too-flawed characters.