& SONS. By David Gilbert. Random House. 434 pages. $27.
Once upon a time, geniuses were granted Olympian license. Now, we’re more interested in watching them sweeten or sour as they fall to earth.
David Gilbert’s second novel, “& Sons,” is drenched in failure. Marriages fail; fathers fail; friends fail. And, sad to say, literature doesn’t compensate for real-life betrayals.
A.N. Dyer, Gilbert’s hero, is a 79-year-old recluse whose greatest success came in his 20s with a now-classic boarding school novel, “Ampersand.” In the present time of “& Sons,” he’s broken beyond repair, he thinks, and held hostage by his early fame. At first, it might seem that Gilbert has placed the Yeatsian dilemma, perfection of the life or of the work, front and center. But he casts off notions of perfection soon enough.
Dyer knows himself to be a fraud and an opportunist in his life and his work.
The novel convenes at a funeral, a fit opening for a book that takes its mood and technique from the past. In the 21st century, Gilbert has written one of those big books that hopes to click the shutter on our contemporary moment. But almost everyone in the novel is in retreat from the present, stuck in some moment of past hurt or failure. Dyer himself lost his way 50 years ago, when his greatest triumph, the publication of “Ampersand,” coincided with his greatest dishonor, the betrayal of his friend Charlie Topping.
The opening funeral is Topping’s. Dyer falls apart before he can give the eulogy, a scene of spectacular public frailty that sets in motion the central action of the novel. Dyer, as a result, “goes all mortal coil” and sends for his sons to reunite with him before he dies.
The title says a great deal about Dyer and his sons. They are defined by their connection — that ampersand — as the sons of greatness. The figure on the other side of the ampersand is in hiding. Dyer’s delusions and narcissism have taken their toll on his children.
Richard, his oldest, kept a teenage journal that he showed his father, only to find huge chunks of it in one of the novels. He’s a recovering drug addict who turns down his father’s plentiful money and has never introduced his children to their grandfather.
Jamie, the second, is more practical with the Dyer money. He takes it to travel the world as a videographer and “superhero bystander” who films scenes of horror.
Andy, the baby whose unorthodox birth disrupted the family, is only 17 and the object of Dyer’s obsessive love.
A further son surrogate is Philip Topping, child of Charlie, and the novel’s narrator. Only pages into his story, Philip draws attention to his own trustworthiness: “Before charges of narrative fraud are flung in my direction, let me defend myself and tell you that A.N. Dyer often used my father in his fiction.”
Philip is a wispy character who lurks on the fringes of the action. Not assertive enough to claim our interest on his own, he serves to add another layer of literary profiteering and to give “& Sons” a postmodern edge.
At the hands of Philip Topping, Dyer becomes the trickster tricked. From the start, it’s clear that Topping makes free with the truth. Henry James would roll in his grave to see the liberties he takes with point of view. Dipping into Dyer’s mind, describing scenes he couldn’t have witnessed, installing himself as voyeur in other scenes: Philip Topping’s stock in trade is narrative mayhem.
“& Sons” is a busy work. Gilbert has written many books in one: a big old-fashioned novel about fathers and sons; a lullaby to old-money New York; a satire of old-money New York; an anatomy of fame’s deforming power; a slapstick of idols and idolaters; a meditation on time’s elasticity; a metafictional study of art.
Within this entertaining mishmash are other books as well: Gilmore gives us huge chunks of “Ampersand” and snippets of other A.N. Dyer novels. J.D. Salinger comes to mind, but A.N. Dyer and David Gilbert don’t need real-life counterparts to rope us in. “& Sons” is funny, heartfelt company.
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.