Back when people still believed in the singular, superlative and (most likely) mythical creature known as the Great American Novel, those who aspired to create it knew that of all the extra-literary qualities required of an aspirant — fortitude, patience, an endless capacity for self-delusion — the most important was audacity. Norman Mailer, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow all had it: that gift for artful provocation that made them seem sage and unflappable and vaguely godlike. It’s hard to believe in this day and age, but regular people actually used to ask each other questions like: “Can you even believe what Gore Vidal said on the Dick Cavett Show last night?”
Six months ago, the name David Gilbert was probably known by relatively few outside the author’s family, his circle of friends and the editors and close readers of those magazines where his short stories have appeared. But six months from now, Gilbert’s should be among the half-dozen or so names cited by critics and serious readers when they’re asked who produced 2013’s most dazzlingly smart, fully realized works of fiction. What’s old-school audacious about “& Sons,” his third book (after “Remote Feed” and “The Normals”), is the way he presents this perfectly legitimate bid for Great American Novel consideration: by demythologizing those swaggering, self-assured figures to whom we’ve accorded Great American Novelist status. Talk about killing your idols: To hear Gilbert tell it, literary lions really are just like you and me — which is to say weak, needy, selfish and desperate to be loved.
Here, the aging lion prowling around his Upper East Side den is A.N. (Andrew) Dyer, who occupies in Gilbert’s invented world a position much like that once occupied by J.D. Salinger. Andrew is notoriously reclusive and press-shy, and yet practically everyone in the English-speaking world counts him as a close confidante based on having discovered his canonical masterpiece, “Ampersand,” at that point in their lives when its pitch-perfect evocation of adolescent angst spoke to them on a personal level.
Andrew spends the next 50 years trying to best his triumphant debut, an effort that leaves little energy left over for his family. His oldest son, Richard, barely survived a freewheeling tour of the drug-fueled 1980s Manhattan demimonde. When he finally did resurface, it was in the form of a strait-laced substance-abuse counselor and family man. Jamie, Richard’s younger brother, is a documentary filmmaker whose forte is the intentionally flat depiction of human misery, his larger aesthetic goal being “to fight the easy art-making instinct. People die. People suffer. This is how they die. This is how they suffer. It’s unspeakably small yet unspeakably big.” Jamie’s obsession with traveling to trouble spots around the globe and recording whatever pick-up horrors he can find there suggests a man with some unresolved pain of his own.
Andrew’s wife has been out of the picture for years. She left him shortly after he had a third son, Andy, with another woman. As “& Sons” opens, the frail, confused, 79-year-old Andrew is fretting: He’s supposed to be delivering the eulogy for a dearly departed best friend, but he can’t locate Andy. In fact, the 17-year-old’s unruly hormones have led him outside onto the church’s steps, where he has made arrangements to meet a 24-year-old woman, an online acquaintance with whom he hopes to lose his virginity.
Our guide to these appetite-driven men of the Dyer family is Philip Topping, whose knowing and elegant account of other, more colorful people’s lives would seem to situate him in Nick Carraway territory. The funeral is his father’s; middle-aged Philip has spent his whole life in the shadow of one Dyer man or another, once as the object of Richard’s scorn and Jamie’s overcompensating pity, and later as a would-be novelist hoping to be taken under Andrew’s wing. Which eventually happens, though not in the way Philip would have preferred: After Philip recklessly destroys his marriage and loses his job as a private-school English teacher, Andrew invites him to stay at the mostly empty Dyer apartment until he can get his pathetic life back on track.
It’s from this suspect vantage point — of the charity case, the resentful hanger-on, the broken man with not much left to lose — that Philip asks readers to have faith in his reliability. He’s a reliably wonderful storyteller, reliably clever, and reliably filled with shrewd insights about these men whom he appears to know better than the members of his own family. But he’s so smooth, he’s almost certainly got to be slippery. He’s too comfortable crossing established lines and violating set rules, starting with the one that requires a narrative voice be either in the sweeping, omniscient third person or in the intimate, confessional first person. Philip wants to have it both ways. But of course, he can’t — not if he’s going to give us the true story about what really happened to Andrew, Richard, Jamie and (especially) Andy when they all came together during that fateful family reunion at the Dyer homestead one weekend.
It’s testimony to the sculpted beauty of Gilbert’s sentences, as filtered through Philip, that they incline us toward forgiveness — something we may feel the need to dispense at the novel’s halfway point. It’s there that we encounter a crucial yet crazy plot device. Readers who don’t mind the occasional twist of sci-fi whimsy to perk up stodgy old psychological realism may not be bothered by it. Others, however, may find themselves penciling a question mark in the margin and then sincerely hoping, for the next 200 pages, that Gilbert was just tossing them a Pynchonian red herring.
Fortunately, the richness and realness of the relationships Gilbert has imagined help to maintain a kind of immune system that’s naturally resistant to plot-manipulating pathogens. And really, who needs contrived twists when the regular collisions between all these long-lost fathers, sons, grandsons, brothers and ex-best friends yield so many surprising moments? In a particularly touching one, Richard — who has just seen his father for the first time in years — takes feeble, confused, self-pitying Andrew by the arm and experiences a flash of sympathy. It’s “one of those moments, thankfully rare, when you can spot another person’s core needs, almost by accident — absolutely by accident since those needs are almost graphic when blatant, like seeing the musculature and tendon required to prop up hope.”
What do men want? If Freud never bothered to pose the question outright, it’s only because he and everybody else were sure they already knew the answer: sex, money, power, glory, immortality. (Watch out for that last one,Andrew Dyer would be the first to tell you.) But when he tenderly clasps his father’s arm, Richard realizes that what his father really and truly needs, more than anything else, is “apology and forgiveness.” See? Told you. Just like you and me.
Turrentine, an editor at OnEarth magazine, is a frequent contributor to Book World.
For more on the ampersand in the title of David Gilbert’s novel, see the Style Blog.
By David Gilbert
Random House. 434 pp. $27