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The sins of the father & Sons'

July 24, 2013
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Novel explores the hidden truths of family and fiction

Tales of fathers and sons have a tendency to be a little overwrought. Family sagas have that built-in sense of melodrama that can sometimes overwhelm otherwise solid storytelling. Finding the line between big feelings and narrative clarity can be hard, but when that balance is struck, the results can be truly remarkable.

'& Sons' (Random House; $27) is one such remarkable result. It is both sweeping and subtle, a grand epic and intimate family portrait all rolled into one. Author David Gilbert offers a look at the consequences of greatness and the toll it can take both on one's family and one's self. 

The funeral of Charles Henry Topping would have been fairly unremarkable by New York City standards. He was the kind of successful that didn't attract a lot of attention. However, the presence of Topping's childhood best friend turns it into a sensation. 

A.N. Dyer is the reclusive author of 'Ampersand,' considered to be one of the seminal coming-of-age novels in the history of American letters not to mention a handful more award-winning contributions to the literary canon.

That funeral kicks off a bizarre week for a pair of long-intertwined families as the death of one patriarch leads another toward a desire to clear the air in his own relationships. Dyer has a pair of estranged sons Richard, the former drug addict and aspiring screenwriter, and Jamie, the shiftless filmmaking dilettante that he wishes to see once again. And then there's their half-brother Andy 17 years old, product of an affair and the reason why Richard and Jamie's mother left their father nearly two decades before.

And rattling around in their midst is Phillip Topping, son of Charles. He's a former schoolteacher who has lost his family to an affair of his own. He also sadly, desperately craves a place at the Dyer family table a place that he will likely never achieve.

The reasons behind the ill-conceived reunion soon come to light, bringing with them strange revelations that have sweeping, long-ranging impacts on three generations within these two inextricably connected families.

In A.N. Dyer, David Gilbert has offered up an answer to the question 'What might have happened had J.D. Salinger continued to publish?' Dyer retreats to a sanctum of his own, but instead of disappearing into a New Hampshire farmhouse, he remains on the Upper East Side, reclusive but still prolific. And he feels very real; Gilbert has meticulously constructed a body of work that feels extant. 'Ampersand' in particular comes off as a book that I myself have both read and loved.

The familial dynamics at play in '& Sons' are built around the need for intimacy and the secrets that prevent that intimacy from blossoming. Some secrets are better kept than others; some even wind up remaining a mystery. And the wants never stop coming wanting acceptance, wanting forgiveness, wanting love, wanting validation they all shove their respective ways to the forefront at one point or another.

Gilbert proves expert in interposing darkness with moments of light. While there's an undeniable sadness that permeates the proceedings everyone involved is somehow broken, perhaps irreparably he also manages to shine a hopeful light, offering an optimism that should feel out of place, yet somehow doesn't. We applaud the good decisions and reel from the bad, but we never stop hoping for a happy ending that we're never sure is even possible.

The New York City inhabited by the Dyer and Topping families comes brightly, vividly alive in '& Sons.' Gilbert manufactures a world filled with intimacies within the larger world of the great city. Lovingly rendered details make New York a character in and of itself a character with wants, needs and demands of its own.

David Gilbert has produced a phenomenal piece of writing. '& Sons' offers humor, pathos and some of the most beautifully rendered, riveting prose you could ever hope to read. 

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