"& Sons” (Random House), by David Gilbert
The ghost of J.D. Salinger hovers over David Gilbert’s new novel, “& Sons.” Set amid the wealth and privilege of Manhattan’s toniest neighborhood, the novel centers on A.N. Dyer, a reclusive author best known for his coming-of-age story set in a boys’ prep school.
When the novel begins, Dyer is preparing to deliver a eulogy for Charles Henry Topping, his lifelong friend, at a church in the heart of the blue-blood district that Gilbert knows and writes about so well.
The Dyers and the Toppings have been friends for years, sending their children to the same schools and vacationing together in the Hamptons. St. James’ Church, the Buckley School, Exeter, Yale — Gilbert nails the taxonomy of class and wealth like a younger Tom Wolfe.
But “& Sons” isn’t primarily social satire, even though parts are hilarious. It’s about the emotional bonds between fathers, sons and brothers — the overwhelming love that can’t be adequately expressed and the burden of unspoken expectations.
"It’s impossibly hard, a father’s decline,” Dyer tells Topping’s son, Philip. “You both want to say so much but you’re both so afraid of saying the same thing, something like, I hope I wasn’t a terrible disappointment.”
Philip Topping is the compromised observer of the Dyer family drama. A wannabe novelist who has settled for teaching fifth grade, he’s been disloyal to his own WASPy clan by secretly yearning to be Dyer’s son.
Dyer’s own three sons, meanwhile, struggle to forge their identities in the long shadow cast by their father’s outsize success. The older two, in their 40s, understand the limitations of his overweening narcissism but can’t quite break free and succeed on their own terms. The youngest, just 17, is still largely an innocent, his youth offering his decrepit dad the opportunity for a parental do-over.
With numerous characters involved in creative pursuits, Gilbert has plenty of room to explore the torments and satisfactions of a writer’s life. Indeed, he has to construct a novel-within-a-novel to explain the public’s enduring fascination with Dyer’s “Catcher in the Rye”-like work, “Ampersand.”
It’s a lot to pack into one novel, and parts of the book feel long. Still, Gilbert is an inventive, emotionally perceptive writer, and despite a wholly unbelievable sci-fi plot twist, “& Sons” has much to offer, particularly for connoisseurs of the Manhattan playground called the Upper East Side.