It's Too Late for Talk
Goodwillie, David, Newsweek
Byline: David Goodwillie
David Gilbert's audacious new novel of fathers and sons explores a fabled fiction writer's real-world legacy.
If the stylish brilliance of recent novels by Rachel Kushner, Jess Walter, and Peter Heller has been hinting at a new golden age of American prose, then David Gilbert's ambitious, sprawling, and altogether masterful second novel, & Sons, confirms it.
There it is, a lead-in as straightforward and declarative as any you'll come across. (I've even provided italics so the sedulous publicists at Random House need not skim further for their pull quote.) Why? Because Gilbert's novel itself is by turns challenging and multilayered, weird and hilarious, dazzling and flawed, and attempting to sort it out in a critical light will take a little time. But hang with me, because & Sons is more than worth the effort.
If the structure of most novels is arc-shaped, & Sons is a chaotic circle. Reading it, I kept envisioning one of those many-laned Parisian roundabouts, with the characters as cars, futilely weaving every which way under the long shadow of the ancient obelisk in the center--in this case a famous and reclusive New York novelist named A.N. Dyer. Suddenly reminded of his mortality after suffering a breakdown at the funeral of his best friend, Charles Topping, the great author reaches out to his three wayward sons in an attempt to reunite his broken family for the first time in decades.
Dyer's two oldest sons carry the scars and resentments of their father's longtime neglect. Richard, a former drug addict with still-lingering anger-management issues, has become an "addiction counselor" at Promises in L.A. Fifteen years sober, he has married one of his patients (a former meth-head named Candie), and together they have two teenage children--neither of whom have met their famous grandfather. This being Hollywood, Richard also writes screenplays, and after years of failure he is elated when a division of Sony Pictures expresses interest in his latest script. But toward the end of a dreamlike meeting with a famous actor and the head of the studio, the truth emerges (at least to the reader; Richard is more credulous). What they're really after is Ampersand, A.N. Dyer's first and most famous novel. If Richard can convince his old man to give up the closely held film rights to this Salinger-esque American classic, well ...
Richard's younger brother Jamie exists in a different cycle of familial torment. Thoughtful, artistic, and obsessed with guilt (he lives off the family trust, which Richard has stubbornly rebuffed), Jamie travels the world filming its horrors and disasters, but then does nothing with the footage. Only a macabre, snufflike, documentary project that he shoots at the request of his dying (and then dead) ex-girlfriend ever sees the light of day, mistakenly becoming a YouTube sensation just as Jamie arrives back home.
The brothers find their once-mythic father in woeful shape, shuffling to and from his study half-lucid and addicted to Vicodin. But almost more worrying is the elder Dyer's obsession with his much younger third son, Andy, the (supposed) product of an affair that ended the author's longstanding union with his wife, Isabel. The word "supposed," of course, supposes secrets, of which there are plenty, and here is where & Sons gets tricky. The book is narrated by Charles Topping's chinless, almost pitiful, son Phillip, whose unreliability is evident from the first pages. It doesn't take an MFA student to realize Phillip isn't present to witness most of the scenes he's reporting on, though for good measure he lets us know anyway: "Before charges of narrative fraud are flung in my direction, let me defend myself and tell you that A.N. Dyer often used my father in his fiction." These words will prove prophetic in more ways than one (and Phillip will progress from a harmless interloper to someone far more destructive), but they also speak to one of the novel's great themes, the interplay--the enduring struggle--between fiction and reality. …