“Fathers seem to start as gods and end as myths and in between whatever human form they take can be calamitous for their sons,” observes Philip Topping, the dubious narrator of David Gilbert’s extraordinary, if somewhat problematic, novel “& Sons.”
Opening with the funeral of Philip’s father and ending with another memorial later that month, Gilbert’s ambitious, overstuffed second novel explores relationships between fathers and sons, authors and their work, idols and devotees, villains and victims, teachers and students, heroes and antiheroes, and our younger and older selves. Gilbert writes trenchantly of the lasting reverberations of our youthful impulses and insecurities: “It can seem like adolescence opens a small hole in which the rest of our lives drain.”
At the novel’s heart is a famous, reclusive New York novelist named A.N. Dyer who made his name 50 years earlier with a Pulitzer Prize winner called “Ampersand” – hence the ampersand in Gilbert’s title – about a prep school prank gone badly awry. When we meet Andrew Dyer, he’s a gout-afflicted lion in winter, 79 years old and struggling to eulogize his oldest friend, Charles Topping – father of the book’s narrator and possibly a model for the hapless victim in Dyer’s disturbing, “Lord of the Flies”-like first novel.
The old author’s consuming concern is with what will become of his youngest son after his death. Seventeen-year-old Andy was the product of a marriage-ending indiscretion, and Dyer has tried to be a better father to him than he was to his two older boys. In an attempt to reunite his family, he summons his long-estranged offspring to his Fifth Avenue duplex.
Richard is a 45-year-old ex-drug addict who’s forged a stable life for himself as a drug counselor, fledgling screenwriter, husband and father in Anaheim. Jamie, a 43-year-old peripatetic documentary filmmaker, has made a career filming disturbing events around the world.
Recalling filmmaker Whit Stillman’s “Metropolitan” and playwright A.R. Gurney Jr.’s “The Dining Room,” “& Sons” captures the jaded, entitled world of wealthy Upper East Side WASPs. Gilbert is especially attuned to the sweet-and-sour cocktail of adolescent horniness, precocious sophistication and cynical bravado that characterizes rich city kids, and the risible culture of literary and film celebrity.
“& Sons” shows off Gilbert’s inventiveness at every turn. There’s not just a novel within this novel, but another writer’s entire oeuvre, evoked with quotes and summaries, including Dyer’s iconic “Ampersand.” This is fed to us in tantalizingly creepy bits as the old man feverishly tries to reconstruct the missing original manuscript – with telling revisions – that he burned in a fit of pique years ago.
Equally vivid is Jamie’s latest haunting film project, “12:01 p.m.,” which chronicles the day-by-day deterioration of his long-married high school girlfriend in the weeks leading up to her death from cancer and the six months that follow it. The handwritten letters between Dyer and his friend Charlie Topping that precede each of the book’s eight sections – and document a lopsided devotion – provide yet another angle on the story.
Line for line, Gilbert’s novel contains a bonanza of rich images. A city awash in construction, limousines and strollers “seemed to be pushing up a new set of teeth.” At Charlie’s funeral, his daughter’s family sit in the second pew, “jammed together, the six of them sour yet insistent, like the richest people flying coach.”
A mother lode of narrative wealth, to be sure – but it is undercut by an issue that has felled many a novel: point of view. Topping’s disappointed and disappointing son, Philip, is a problematic narrator who paints himself as a loser and pathetic hanger-on, a writer manque who’s both enamored and resentful of the Dyers.
He’s painfully aware of being less interesting than the characters he’s writing about – and he’s right. “Where am I? Do you even care?” he asks at one point. “Or am I blocking your view?” He bears some resemblance to the underachieving, passive protagonist of Gilbert’s first novel, “The Normals.”
Philip is unreliable, but inconsistently so, which results in narrative muddle. Sometimes he’s a witness, but often he’s not – substituting conjectures or fabrications for reportage. We’re told that 12 years have elapsed since the events related. Evidence that things have picked up for Philip in the interim – beyond the existence of this self-deprecating narrative – would have strengthened “& Sons.”
As a boy headed to boarding school at Exeter, Philip was assured by his mother that she did love his distant, probably closeted father, and added: “The secret is you have to adjust your expectations, Philip. Don’t get trapped in other people’s opinions and how they view things. You are in charge of your own happiness, even in high school.” Wise words. But what did Philip make of them? “How do we survive being so loved once?” he says.