A charming, often funny, sophomore novel by Gilbert (The Normals, 2004).
Novels about novelists run the risk of being too meta on the one hand and too cute on the other, though some occasionally work—the sterling example of our time being Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys. Gilbert wisely places as much emphasis on the surrounding players as on paterfamilias A.N. Dyer, who has written one particularly well-received coming-of-age novel and a host of other works that have established him nicely in the oak-paneled Upper East Side literary stratosphere. Those surrounding players are, somewhat in order, the late friend whose funeral opens the novel, then offspring, his own and the deceased’s: thus the “& sons” of the title, suggesting that literature might be a family business but more pointedly, that, in a household run with distant dictatorial benevolence, as if in a company, there’s going to be trouble. So it is with Dyer’s boys, gathered as Dad feels his own mortality approaching, who are a hot mess of failure coupled with ambition (and, for the most part, willing to work to attain it); one is a former addict, another a maker of documentaries no one sees, still another, the youngest, is fully aware that he is the agent of his father's split from his older brothers' mother. Much of the story is a (mostly) gentle sendup of the literary life and its practitioners of the fusty old school and the hipster new (“You know what would give the story extra kick,” says one of the latter, “if the other guy was Mark David Chapman.”); a highlight is a devastatingly accurate peek into a hoity-toity book party. In the main, the novel moves without a hitch, though a couple of elements don’t quite hang together, particularly the place of the narrator, at once respectful and not quite trustworthy, in the whole affair. Still, Gilbert tantalizes with a big question: Will Dad, before he kicks the bucket, share some of his fortunes in any sense other than the monetary and bring his sons into the fold?
Read on for the answer, which takes its time, most enjoyably, to unfold.