I first mistook David Gilbert’s second novel for the sort of corduroy-sleeved family saga at which American writers excel. The main character, Dyer, is an elderly author gathering his sons about him in Manhattan after the funeral of a boyhood friend, Charles. There’s Richard, a Hollywood screen hack whose teenage journal Dyer lifted for a prize-winning novel; his half-brother Andy, 17, on a mission to pop his cherry with Dyer’s sassy young agent; and Jamie, a documentary maker whose time-lapse footage of an ex-girlfriend’s death from cancer has gone viral.
What muddies their stories is that they reach us via Charles’s son, Philip, a frustrated writer who left his wife and kids for a 20-year-old Vicodin addict he met on a sex site. He once researched a thesis on Dyer’s novels ‘and the kidnapping of identity’ — ominous — and he’s ‘always had an unfortunate tendency to spin myself into alternative universes’. So when one scene lets slip that we’re in a world where Sony Pictures can bankroll an Oscar-winning, multi-million-grossing adaptation of The Erasers, Alain Robbe-Grillet’s avant-garde policier, it’s a sign that & Sons may not be quite the realist chronicle it seems. And that’s before a story line about Alfred Nobel and human cloning.
Interleaved between chapters are facsimiles of letters Dyer sent Charles in his youth. The crabbed squiggles make hard reading but form a bedrock against which to judge the motives for Philip’s outlandish narration. As a student Dyer is cruel to Charles, his lapdog; in one letter, he apologises for laughing when Charles breaks his leg, but doesn’t sound very sorry. From these papers Philip learns more about how Dyer used Charles as a character in his hit debut, Ampersand, a vile-sounding novel about a schoolboy who tortures his teacher.
This all has a crunchy psychological texture if you can leap one humdinger of a hurdle: that as a narrator, Philip is talking out of his hat when he reports, say, Dyer’s thoughts at Charles’s deathbed or how Andy felt the first time he went down on a girl (‘he wanted a flashlight’). Gilbert raises the problem himself — he’s not stupid — but his excuses are underpowered (Philip mumbles about eavesdropping and general artistic licence). It’s better when the book just bulldozes through with the accumulated heft and charm of its set pieces; a drunken literary party here, a comical bedroom scene there.
& Sons is cute and knowing but ultimately less than the sum of these parts. More spite and dread might have made it the novel Gilbert seems to want — a tit-for-tat control fantasy in which Philip transfigures the Dyer clan the way Dyer transfigured Charles. I feel a bit of a hick saying I’d have preferred the story straight, but maybe a writer who pulls up the carpet before you’re even in the door won’t mind the odd reader wishing they’d left sooner.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £13.99. Tel: 08430 600033