Every year, there’s another attempt at writing The Great American Novel. And the latest instalment in that neverending series is David Gilbert’s latest novel, & Sons. Very early on, Gilbert sets out his stall with “Fathers start as gods and end as myths and in between whatever human form they take can be calamitous for their sons”. So we know what we’re dealing with. This is the story of A.N. Dyer, a Salinger-esque novelist, as reclusive as he is revered, and his three sons. The eldest is Richard, who fled to California after surviving a massive drug addiction, and is trying to carve out a career as a screenwriter. In the middle is Jamie, a documentary filmmaker whose world is spinning of its axis with the death of his first girlfriend, whose demise he documented at her request. And then there’s 17 year old Andy, whose unexpected and apparently adulterous arrival into the Dyer family cleft it in twain. Our narrator is Phillip Topping, son of A.N Dyer’s lifelong friend, whose funeral is the catalyst for the events of the book. Attempting to deliver the eulogy, Dyer has a meltdown and calls his two wayward sons home, to settle his affairs.
It’s a very much character-driven book. Phillip grew up alongside the Dyer boys, but feels very much like the poor relation and reminisces a lot about his teenage years with the Dyers. There’s mention that Phillip has just imploded his own family and professional situation with an adulterous liaison but that doesn’t seem fully explored. I suspect that is because Phillip is a horribly selfish and really not that pleasant narrator. An event towards the end of the book tipped my annoyance at his whining into full on hate. He’s an arsehole and spending time in his company isn’t always fun. I also had issues with the structure of the first person narrative, with the narrator detailing whole swathes of the book for which he just is not present and can’t know about.
The writing is without a doubt extraordinary though. It goes a long way to making up for those faults. It is by turns beautiful, heartbreaking and hilarious. It’s never short of engrossing and his similes are quite genius – “She was wearing of all things a maid’s uniform, which have her the distinct impression of being swallowed whole by a leaping killer whale”. Purely from that perspective, I found this a joy to read, but there was a prevailing feeling over the book as a whole. It really felt like Gilbert worships at the altar of Jonathan Franzen in general, The Corrections in particular. Every page screamed “I AM WRITING A SERIOUS LITERARY WORK”. I was reminded of when I saw Sally Ann Triplett as Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes. She clearly thought she was giving a star making turn, but those kind of performances are meant to appear effortless and I have never seen a performer working SO HARD to get there. & Sons feels like that. The effort drips off of every sentence.
There’s also a plot point revolving around the youngest Dyer which doesn’t quite gel with the rest of the novel and the way Gilbert chooses to wrap it up didn’t sit well with me either. All in all, I found this a hugely enjoyable book, and while it’s undeniably a great read, I didn’t think it was quite the Important Book Gilbert was aiming for.