& SONS, David Gilbert’s stellar new novel, is the rarest of literary achievements: an intelligent work of art that makes you laugh out loud. Awkwardly loud, I mean, as in, on the morning A Train to work, loud, surrounded by surly morning New Yorkers who curiously glance at the book’s lovely, smoky-yellow cover, wondering: Just what is so funny this time of day?? I laughed, so hard, so heartily, while reading this book. There’s a train-wreck-in-progress can’t-look-away emotional connection with certain characters in this text, calling to mind the better parts of Kingsley Amis’ LUCKY JIM, or, Martin Amis’ comedic masterpiece MONEY (also set in New York). I cared so deeply about these characters, I laughed with relief when they escaped their fate, or, in some cases, got what they deserved. But let’s address one important question first: namely, what’s up with that title?
Ampersand is the title of A.N. Dyer’s masterpiece, a bildungsroman set at the Philips Exeter Academy, that launched A.N. Dyer’s literary career and brought him fame in his early twenties. In the text, Ampersand draws comparisons to A Separate Peace and Catcher in the Rye, informing us of the novel’s devoted-readership and of its author’s reclusiveness. We meet A.N. Dyer, at the beginning of & SONS, as an old man summoned to give the eulogy at his best friend Charlie Topping’s funeral, while we learn that Charlie’s son, Phillip, is the narrator of & Sons (the book you’re reading). Got it? Layers upon layers here, a true palimpsest, questioning the form of the novel, intertextuality, veracity, authorship, and other important questions present in this literature. In terms of “plot,” Phillip Topping, our narrator, is a disgraced fifth grade teacher telling the story of his family’s friendship with the Dyer family, whose patriarch is the famous author A.N. Dyer, and whose three sons Richard, Jamie, and Andy provide the novel’s core narrative energy. That’s the gist of how the story starts and proceeds in a mostly chronological fashion. And this is where the book has drawn its comparisons to THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV.
We start in & SONS with the funeral scene, in which certain mysteries are established, and we reel forward to Richard’s story (would-be Hollywood screenwriter / substance abuse counselor), then Jamie’s story (world-traveling documentarian / adjunct film faculty at the New School). Richard’s chapters include a satirical Hollywood character named Eric Harke, perhaps based on someone as famous as Justin Bieber, or as ridiculous as Shia LaBoeuf. Eric’s almost psychotic mission is to play the main character in the film adaptation of Ampersand. Eric’s so obsessed with getting this part that he’s memorized the entire novel, even dressed himself like the main character (in vintage 1950s gear), and, while cruising around “coked”-up in NYC starts quoting extremely long passages of the book verbatim at the most awkward moments of the novel’s climactic scene. He just breaks into character in the middle of otherwise totally normal conversations, even calling out the punctuation marks out loud and everything, while everyone around him fawns because he’s Eric Harke, BFD-extraordinaire. Ugh. I laughed so hard at every scene this kid shows up in, doing his ridiculous thing.
There are certain plot points we can’t give away without spoiling the novel’s ending. This was one of the most satisfying reads of the year and will doubtlessly dominate many of the year’s Best Of lists that should be popping up in a month or two. Fans of high-society novels will enjoy this, fans of formal experimentation, too, and of course any readers who enjoy the books on our Top Ten Funniest Books list. Get this book, read it, have your awkward moment of morning laughter. Be thankful this isn’t about your family. Be thankful you’re not a coked-up Hollywood heartthrob.