Thursday 14 November 2019

Exploring family life on a New York backdrop

Fiction: & Sons, David Gilbert, 4th Estate, £16.99, tpbk, 430 pages

Edel Coffey

There is something about the New York novel. Every so often, one comes along that perfectly represents the city and its people, whether it’s Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities or Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude. David Gilbert’s second novel, & Sons, falls easily into that category, following a long tradition of writers depicting a segment of life in that great city.

Gilbert has better access than most to the privileged lives of those living on the upper east side. He grew up on Park Avenue with an investment banker father. Whilst these attributes might previously have been disadvantages to anyone who wanted to become a struggling writer, Gilbert has harnessed those experiences in this book about the fictional Dyer and Topping families.

The book opens with the death of Charlie Topping, lifelong friend of the reclusive writer AN Dyer, a JD Salinger type. Dyer has come out of hiding for his friend’s funeral but a botched elegy prompts him to call his estranged family together in an attempt to affirm their family ties.

Dyer’s three sons are Richie, the eldest, an estranged scriptwriter living in LA for the past 20 years, Jamie the nihilistic filmmaker and Andy, the 17-year-old product of a brief affair with a Swedish au pair. None of the sons spend much time with their father or each other, so when Dyer calls them home, it is with interesting consequences.

Philip Topping (the late Charlie’s son) is the narrator, and through his unreliable gaze we get a lot of information about the Dyers’ upbringing. Phillip is living in a hotel when we meet him and when Dyer invites Philip to stay at his apartment while he gets back on his feet, Philip doesn’t wait to be asked twice. This invitation puts him at the centre of the family reunion and he is perfectly poised to relate the story.

He is the perfect person to tell this story of fatherhood, of expectation and entitlement and of growing up in the shadow of a literary giant.

The book, as its title suggests, deals with the abiding issues of fatherhood. For all the difficulty Dyer senior has communicating with his sons (he doesn’t do emotions), Richard can’t seem to connect with his eldest son either, who is constantly gazing into his  phone’s screen. The book also deals with mortality, and the issue of legacy and how it is others and not you yourself who gets to define your legacy.

New York looms large in the book but there are enjoyable interludes of Hollywood — the coked up film star, the manipulative producer.

The writing is excellent, with some really inventive metaphors and description, although it can veer into showiness at times. Gilbert has also created an impressive internal universe here, including quotes from all of of Dyer’s novels, which gives added depth to this big book about New York and its privileged families. Very satisfying indeed.

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