David Gilbert’s new novel & Sons revolves around A. N. Dyer, a reclusive novelist who bears more than a passing resemblance to J. D. Salinger. Dyer doesn’t guard his solitude quite as fiercely as Salinger, but he is almost as famous, and primarily for a single novel, published in the 1950s. Gilbert has said in an interview that “Whereas Catcher in the Rye was very much about…Holden Caulfield’s struggles, Ampersand is…more of a Dostoevsky version of childhood, of adolescence.”
Appropriately for a novel that explores the trickery of storytelling, the narrator of & Sons is not Dyer but Philip Topping, the son of Dyer’s best friend, the recently deceased Charlie Topping. Philip is a struggling writer, and & Sons is presented as his nonfiction account of the time following his father’s funeral. Almost immediately, however, we realize that Philip will allow himself extreme poetic (or novelistic) license to imagine events he has never witnessed and to enter the minds of people he knows almost nothing about.
The ampersand in the novel’s title refers both to the joining of fathers and sons, and to A. N. Dyer’s lucrative Ampersand, passages of which appear throughout & Sons. The novel, which has sold more than 45 million copies and still sells a 100,000 units a year, is set in a boarding school based on Phillips Exeter Academy. The book-within-a-book focuses on the kidnapping of the headmaster’s son by a group of boys who treat their captive with ever-increasing barbarity: think Holden Caulfield as Jack Merridew in Lord of the Flies. As Gilbert’s novel unfolds, we realize that Ampersand’s plot was likely based on A. N. Dyer’s cruel treatment of Charlie Topping at Exeter. We learn, too, that Philip suffered humiliation at the hands of Dyer’s sons, who are also Exeter alumni. (New Hampshire, it turns out, can be a pretty nasty place.)
If Exeter is important to & Sons, the Upper East Side is even more central. Gilbert is a master at bringing place to life: Park Avenue sometimes feels as fully alive as any of the characters. A. N. Dyer’s apartment on 70th Street overlooks the Frick Collection, and that museum’s tasteful offering of paintings and furniture provides a perfect corollary for the refined, expensive tastes of many of the novel’s characters. Gilbert both mocks and celebrates their predilections, as in this description of a cocktail party at the Frick, where the guests are like planets: “Shoulders jostled for their own drinkable moons, people circling in various paths, some spinning into outer galleries, the Diet Cokes and Perriers, while Dewar’s and Bombay never ventured far from the home star.”
Philip lurks on the edge of the main action, but & Sons is primarily about A. N. Dyer and his three children. The youngest, 17-year-old Andy, is his aged father’s favorite, and Gilbert spends large (sometimes slow) chunks of narrative on Andy’s adolescent angst. The eldest brother, Richard—a former addict, aspiring screenwriter, and father himself—is mean and self-involved, the least likeable of the trio.
Fortunately, Jamie, the middle child—an unprincipled if occasionally brilliant videographer—is worth following. In a plot strand reminiscent of Don DeLillo or Paul Auster, Jamie honors a request by a terminally ill former girlfriend to make a video of her answering the same question each day: “How are you?” After her death, Jamie decides, on his own, to hide a camera in her coffin that takes one picture every day so that her physical decay is recorded in time-lapse with the same dispassionate regularity as her dying. The resulting video is leaked onto the Internet and quickly goes viral, although the repercussions for Jamie are uncertain.
Indeed, & Sons at times feels as digressive as its narrator. Philip’s obsession with all things Dyer keeps us circling back to events that almost anyone else would have ignored. Nevertheless, the final pages have quite a kick—Philip reveals the secret guilt that apparently prompted him to write the book—and Gilbert’s account of the many novels of A. N. Dyer make them sound not unlike & Sons itself: complicated, troubled, imperfect—but well worth reading.