By David Gilbert
Contemporary literary fiction
Inferring, filling in the blanks, making connections and making meaning by inferring are what I use and what I gain from reading literary fiction. These same techniques are used by the characters in David Gilbert's & Sons as the basis of how they feel and what they base their decisions on. The results are not always predictable, but they do feel right within the context of this novel.
Gilbert's novel opens with a famed recluse of an author near the end of his days attending the funeral of his lifelong friend. It's a harrowing scene as one of the few times in this huge novel that the reader is inside A.N. Dyer's head. He's feeble in just about every aspect, and it's not his old friend who concerns him, it's his youngest son. Where is he? Where's Andy?
Teen-age Andy's outside the grand Manhattan church chain-smoking, looking for a woman he met online who promised to meet him. She works for his father's publisher and would love to be part of the great A.N. Dyer's world. Like all the other characters, these two will discover their importance to each other not as individuals, but as satellites in the great writer's orbit.
A.N. Dyer's first novel, Ampersand, is renowned and taught and read even on their own by succeeding generations. Dyer's sons include two with his former wife, grown men who have not quite become adults, and Andy, a younger son whose surprise existence ended Dyer's marriage and who may resemble his father far more than the average son. Dyer's apparent wish to be a better father to his youngest than he was to the first two boys -- or at least his obvious affection for this child -- both spurs several actions that dictate the destiny of characters and displays the ways in which fathers and sons let each other down.
Another once-young man, the son of Dyer's best friend whose funeral opens the novel, wishes he was Dyer's son. Phillip is both a bystander who reports incidents he shouldn't know about and a character that expresses the futility of yearning for something that will always be beyond one's reach. Neither aspect of this character is a detriment -- it all works.
Devastatingly, Gilbert reveals the significance of Dyer's first novel's title and how at least one of the next generation of characters has lived a lie when the story behind the novel is made clear. That novel, with its Exeter setting and student cruelty, is haunted by both A Separate Peace and The Secret History. This makes it one of those novels that don't exist but that you wish did.
The world of publishing is as important to the scope of the story as family ties. Gilbert's ability to bring to mind various segments of publishing in the 20th century and today, real novels and writers, and the compulsion of creative people to create are well-drawn.
The construction of the novel keeps the story from being the same-old, same-old tale of old man regret and young man sorrow born of broken promises and unfulfilled potential. For example, letters written through the years from Dyer to his friend Charles Henry Topping don't appear to say much when they appear at the beginning of the various sections, yet the cumulative effect is important to the Dyer story. The sections in which the two older Dyer sons are introduced could veer into sloppy Franzen territory but Gilbert keeps that from happening with active narratives that show, rather than tell, where the boys are coming from. They want to carry on the legacy but be their own men. And they don't wallow in their own emotional swamps.
What is revealed in the end is that, even more than fathers and sons who wish for more from each other, is the unapologetic heartlessness of the creative ones who greedily take from those who are not the artists. Those from whom they take and those to whom they give are not always the same people. And feelings have little to do with it. All that is left are the works that have been taken from others' lives. Fittingly, Phillip uses the story of the Dyers to convey what his life has been like and leaves the reader to infer what will become of him next.
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