David Gilbert’s second novel, & Sons, begins with a funeral. Charlie Topping, father of the book’s narrator Phillip Topping, has died. New York’s elite have turned out to witness the ceremony, many just to catch a glimpse of the famous author Andrew (A.N. on the book jacket) Dyer, best and oldest friend of the deceased.
Dyer is a Salinger type character, a reclusive author who hasn’t published in 20 years. He was, however, prolific early in his career. His magnum opus, Ampersand, is a cult coming-of-age novel – Dyer’s Catcher in the Rye – and has sold over 45 million copies.
Charlie’s death puts Andrew in a panic. Fearing his impending doom, he summons his estranged sons, Richard and Jamie, to New York to resolve some suddenly pressing family business. It is the first time they meet Andrew’s youngest son, 17-year-old Andy.
These three sons are inextricably tied to Ampersand, caught somewhere between pride of association and the burden of never being able to scramble out from under the great novel’s lengthy shadow (you’ll notice the ‘&’ cleverly preceding them even in the title).
Like many family stories, the narrative flips from the past to present, constantly dredging up new complexities. Gilbert uses an elaborate construction to bring it all together: an unreliable narrator, letters, film scripts and extracts from Ampersand and other A.N. Dyer novels. It’s a clever feat; however, this cleverness often detracts from the impact of the story’s revelations – of which there are many. By the time I pieced everything together the story had lost much of its emotional fizz.
That aside, & Sons still has a lot to offer readers. The writing is often wonderful, and the book has many unique, weighty descriptions that demand to be re-read. The glimpse into the rarefied world of the New York literary scene is golden. Mostly, however, this is a story for anyone who has felt the double-edged sword of inheritance.
Joseph Rubbo is a bookseller at Readings Carlton.