In David Gilbert's novel, the great writer's a bad dad

David Gilbert, author of "& Sons" (Random House, David Gilbert, author of "& Sons" (Random House, July 2013). Photo Credit: Susie Gilbert

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REVIEW

& SONS, by David Gilbert, Random House, 434 pp., $27.

Full disclosure: I'm a sucker for novels about writers, and I like to think I would be, even if I didn't type for a living.

But why would anyone else want to read about the kind of boring narcissist who sits in a room by himself all day? For one thing, books about writers are almost always funny, at least for a while. And having a writer for a protagonist is a great way to tackle the problem of human futility, since no one else's strivings for immortality are as reliably quixotic. Finally, books about writers are written with rare authority; here, at last, is an author who knows what he's talking about.

Fine examples of such works abound. "The New Grub Street" is perhaps the granddaddy of the genre, but just in the past half-century we have (in no particular order) "Humboldt's Gift," "Any Human Heart," "Misery," "The Wife," "Wonder Boys," "Under the Net," "The Ghost Writer," "The Blind Assassin," "Sugar and Rum" and "Starting Out in the Evening," every one giving as much pleasure as you can hope to have between covers by yourself.

David Gilbert's unfortunately titled new novel, "& Sons," is a marvelous addition to the list. At its heart is A.N. Dyer, a moribund product of New York's Upper East Side WASP elite who, blessed with a first-rate education, a trust fund and undeniable talent, produces 14 novels, three sons and a shattered marriage -- all before the action even gets started. Bonus for real-estate-obsessed readers: he's got a Fifth Avenue apartment to die for.

The book begins with the funeral of Dyer's oldest friend, gentle and stammering Charlie Topping, someone the great man seems never to have truly liked. His death is a memento mori that prompts the old literary lion to summon his two grown sons for an important powwow. There, in that magnificent apartment, he implores Richard and Jamie to take on an important task after he's gone: the care of their 17-year-old half-brother, Andy, whose birth, ostensibly to a housekeeper, destroyed their parents' marriage. Andy, for his part, mainly wants to lose his virginity. Staring at an old photo of his father as a young man, Andy sees that "A.N. Dyer was good looking in the style of those vintage pictures where everybody shimmered by dint of their bad habits." He, meanwhile, was "lumpy with adolescence, as if every night a pair of tiny fists pummeled him raw."

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Richard, a drug addiction counselor and part-time screenwriter, has his own agenda: a bigshot producer and a famous actor want to make a movie of one of his scripts -- if he can help them obtain rights to Dyer's first novel, "Ampersand," a modern classic the great man has refused to let be filmed. "Like many people who have escaped their past," Gilbert tells us, "Richard assumed his absence was suffered on an almost daily basis. But really no one missed him much."

Skulking just offstage, and crashing through the scenery at the most inopportune times, is Philip Topping, Charlie's son, who has lost his teaching job and blown up his beloved family by having an affair with a young woman from Staten Island who works at J. Crew. Philip is the ultimate unreliable narrator, reporting not only on scenes he can't possibly have witnessed, but even from the inside of other people's heads.

This overwhelmingly masculine book may sound outdated -- in its concern, for example, with a subculture that was in decline, even when Henry James and Edith Wharton wrote about it. But this isn't a novel you should read for its plot, or even for its too-clever-by-half narration. Read "& Sons" for its energy and wit, for the dynamic storytelling and especially for the fresh observations that leap from every page. At one point, when we encounter the grown-ups who played the Trapp family children in "The Sound of Music," the author tells us, "These former child stars seemed swollen with age, as if stung by a giant bee."

Read it also for a witty and ultimately tragic take on the perennial subject of how the sins of the fathers are visited on their sons. There are echoes of Turgenev here, to say nothing of Jonathan Franzen and John Irving. But the music is entirely Gilbert's, and at the end of this bravura performance you'll want to give him a standing ovation.

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