Gripping tale exudes spirit of New York

By Stephanie Johnson

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David Gilbert presents a sprawling and inventive tale. Photo / Susie Gilbert
David Gilbert presents a sprawling and inventive tale. Photo / Susie Gilbert

Hyperbole often surrounds big novels, especially big novels from New York about New York and by New Yorkers, but in Gilbert's case it is all justified. & Sons is an extraordinary, brilliant novel, just shy of 500 pages, full to bursting with pronouncements on writing, the writer's life and family relationships. It's also mostly about men, about fathers and sons, brothers and friends. If there are times when Gilbert's desire to fill in every detail palls, it is easy for the reader to forgive and be carried along by the lively, wry narrative voice.

A.N. Dyer is 79 and feeling it. He is a famous author, mostly for his early novel, Ampersand, set in a private New York school, a kind of Lord Of The Flies narrative about boys being cruel to boys.

As many novels are, it's semi-autobiographical, centering on cruelties perpetrated on a character he based on his life-long friend Charles Topping.

As the novel opens, Dyer and his three middle-aged sons are attending Charles' funeral in a New York church.

Dyer is confused, guilty, verging on demented. As the second chapter opens we are introduced to the "I" of the novel, Philip Topping, Charles' son.

"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," he says, setting up a conceit that allows the writer to draw close to other characters throughout, even when Topping himself is not present. It's a clever idea, one of many Gilbert employs to tell his story, which could so easily have been yet another big American novel about a middle-class dysfunctional family.

Gilbert plays with the reader's sympathies for this unreliable narrator. Philip has grown up with the Dyer boys, holidaying with them, attending the same schools and haunted by a sense of inferiority. In their youths, the Dyer boys were wild, basking in the reflected fame of their father. Always in their shadow, Philip has been the observer, the victim, and jealous recorder of their family history.

New York leaps from the pages in all its colour and chaos. Of the crowd attending a book launch at the Frick, we are told, "All of them had gone to nifty schools; all of them had chosen the love of books over straight commerce; and all of them realised, as every year their horizon grew shorter, not the mistake they made . . . but the miscalculation in terms of their place within the transit of passing times."

This is every contemporary writer's burden, perhaps. A.N. Dyer tells his gathered sons, "the only thing worse than a writer is a self-pitying writer. And guess what, we're all self-pitying".

It is a common experience, when reading about privileged, clever characters, to wonder what they have to pity themselves for, other than lack of hard experience. The middle son, Jamie, has spent his life videoing death and despair in war zones and closer to home. For him, "ugliness seemed to signify emotional intensity". He tells a class studying "docufiction, or cinema verite, or fictive nonfiction, or narrative nonfiction, or any one of those terms as long as mockumentary was avoided," to see "history as an act of fiction", which is exactly what Philip Topping is making of the Dyer family.

Sprawling and endlessly inventive, & Sons is a surprising and beautifully written tale.

& Sons by David Gilbert (Fourth Estate $35).

- NZ Herald

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