Is A.N. Dyer, the reclusive novelist at the center of David Gilbert's new novel & Sons, meant to evoke J.D. Salinger? Perhaps, but that's not really the point in this sharp, funny, knowing send-up of New York's Upper East Side literary scene.
At the center of David Gilbert's new novel, & Sons, is a novelist who became a Pulitzer Prize-winning sensation at age 28. But by the time he's 79, A.N. Dyer wishes that he'd never written a word.
"& Sons" opens at the society funeral of Charles Topping, Dyer's childhood friend, where the great writer fumbles his way through a eulogy to a packed church of high-society gawkers.
“And there he sat, up front, all alone in the first pew. For those who asked, the ushers confirmed it with a reluctant nod. Yep, that's him. For those who cared but said nothing, they gave themselves away by staring sideways and pretending to be impressed by the nearby stained glass, as if devotees of Cornelius the Centurion or Godfrey of Bouillon instead of a seventy-nine year old writer with gout.”
The novel is narrated by Philip Topping, son of the recently deceased. Philip is a catty, unreliable observer who, it becomes clear, imagines that he would vastly have preferred Dyer as a father to the hapless Charlie.
“Kaye was an unmarried breeder of Wheaton terriers, through seeing her you might have guessed Pomeranians,” Philip remarks about a funeral guest. “But her true profession was aggrieved yet devoted daughter, a career she had thrived in for nearly forty-seven years and from which she would never retire.”
The funeral and an old-school book launch party are the novel's two big set pieces, in which Gilbert sends up the New York literati with great attention to detail.
But “& Sons” most concerns itself with the damage fathers unconsciously inflict on their male offspring. “Fathers seem to start as gods and end as myths and in between whatever human form they take can be calamitous for their sons,” Gilbert writes.
In addition to Philip, who spends his time trying to insinuate himself into the Dyer clan, there are the Dyer boys: Richard, a recovering addict and would-be screenwriter with two kids; Jamie, a sometime documentarian who managed to extend adolescence well into middle age; and teenage Andy, who is at the boarding school his dad and Charlie attended and where his father's first novel was set.