Monday, July 22, 2013

& Sons by David Gilbert - Book Review

How many novels over time have explored the tortured lives of people living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan after graduating from Phillips Exeter Academy and Yale University into a world of privilege, wealth, and pain? &Sons, a second novel by Robert Gilbert joins this parade with an absorbing portrait of the trials and tribulations of such a tortured family. Sarcasm aside, & Sons by David Gilbert (Random House, July 2013, $27.00, 464 pages) tells the harrowing and often gripping story of a family which is a victim of its own success. A father, A.N. Dyer, who has published fourteen novels to great recognition and financial success and his three sons, each challenged and tortured by the elusive success of his father and the search for self in that relationship are the main characters. The story is told by Phillip Topping, the son of Dyer's best friend since childhood, who is a contemporary of Andrew Dyers' sons. The book's title, & Sons, is a pun on the the name of Dyer's most successful novel, Ampersand, a coming of age novel set at Phillips Exeter Academy in the 1950's and compared frequently by fictional critics to coming of age works such as A Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Piece.

The novel, bookended by two funerals, opens with Andrew Dyer seated in the posh Episcopal parish of his youth, trying to decide what to say at Charlie Topping's.  his best friend, funeral. Meanwhile, Dyer's son Andy, of a woman other than his former wife Isabel, waits outside for a sought after assignation and misses his father's eulogy. Philip Topping, always in the background or on the fringes, comments, “Fathers seem to start as gods and end as myths and in between whatever human form they take can be calamitous for their sons.” Phillip's observation sums up the problems the novel presents as we meet Andrew's sons Richard, Jamie, and Andy. Each has talent, ability, and a certain familial charm as well as his father's iconic last name, which serves to open doors and place barriers in his way. Failing to deliver his eulogy, Andrew is helped home and calls his sons together from around the nation for a crucial last family get together.

The three sons are each struggling with the demons that accompany being the offspring of a famous and accomplished father. They have all followed their father to Exeter Academy, which carries it's own burden of excellence and fame, and found the association to be excruciating. Richard, the oldest, has moved to California to escape his drug addiction and become a drug counselor with a wife and two children and a secret desire to become a writer himself. Jamie, the second son, has become a maker of rather strange, but admired, documentary films and is currently engaged on a new project involving a dying lover. Young Andrew, only seventeen and born of a different mother than the other two, is struggling at school and with his desire to grow up and become a person on his own. “Your single moment of weakness wears diapers,” may encapsulate much of the novel in a single sentence. The novel asks the question, among others, of how does attending Buckley School (a social pre prep school in Manhattan), Exeter, and Yale lead to a real life of search to equal what one is born into? The novel constantly quotes passages from the father's novel which find analogous experiences in the lives of his sons. The senior Andrew Dyer's masterpiece novel Ampersand dominates the lives and consciousnesses of the three sons as they return to New York to with their dying (and newly needy) father.

It may be that that the sons of the counter culture of the 60's and 70's are gaining sufficient perspective on their raising and the way they were parented to exact their revenge in the novels of the early twenty-first century. An extended segment from the novel Ampersand foreshadows the man Andrew has become and Andy might be. A set piece book release party at the Frick Museum, across the street from Andrew's apartment, is a classic of ironic yet worshipful satire of a novel release party where the rich and the talented mix and preen. It is both howlingly funny and ultimately tragic, which could be said of much of & Sons. Sandwiched between the two funerals, the novel explores the effects of great art on the families of the artist as well as the license the artist takes with using the content his children provide and the effect on them of using it. The rather strange appearance of eugenics as a plot element seems an unnecessary device to me.

At one level & Sons is a novel of the lives and trials of the rich and talented from the upper east side of Manhattan. At another level it catalogs and explores the tensions of searching for self in an environment of parental acclaim and achievement as well as one of much literature's great themes, the search for father. The language is often crisp, the situations eerily familiar. David Gilbert writes about a world he knows and seems to have the same mixed feelings about as the sons in his novel. David Gilbert is the author of The Normals and the short story collection Remote Feed. His stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, GQ, and Bomb. He lives in New York City with his wife and three children.

&Sons by David Gilbert (Random House, 2013, 464 pages, $27.00) succeeds on a number of levels. It's a good tale of a family in crisis as well as a fine setting of the world of the socially prominent in Manhattan. The language of generational stress rings true as Gilbert makes us gasp and laugh almost simultaneously. At times it leaves the reader uncomfortable while ultimately providing a satisfying read. The book was provided to me for review by the publisher as an electronic galley through Edelweiss.