I've written before about the convention of beginning a novel with a wedding. It allows the author to assemble and identify his cast of characters with a minimum of exposition. David Gilbert's & Sons proves that a funeral works equally well. The deceased is Charles Henry Topping, but the focus of all eyes is Topping's eulogist, reclusive literary giant A.N. Dyer, whose first novel “Ampersand” was the “Catcher in the Rye” of his generation. The death of his friend prompts the aging Dyer to gather his three sons to New York, where he lives in a grand duplex across the street from the Frick Museum.
What follows is a week in the lives of Dyer and his sons, as observed by Topping's son Philip, a somewhat unwelcome house guest and the novel's unreliable narrator. Gilbert examines the lives of the three sons, showing how they became who they are because of their father and in spite of him. And he explores the price that the father has paid in his quest for literary fame. Interspersed throughout the book are letters between Dyer and his friend Charles Topping, stretching from childhood, which offer clues to their uneven friendship.
Gilbert's prose is at its powerful best in examining the complex relationships between fathers and sons, between brothers, between friends, between art and life. He uses New York itself as an element in the drama, and a wonderful scene at a reception at the Frick allows him to satirize the art scene even as his characters reveal funny and serious facets of their complicated connections. I especially liked Gilbert portrayal of Dyer's teenaged son Andy, the product of a mysterious liaison that ended his father's marriage, as he seesaws between adolescent angst and exuberance, struggling to understand his father and to escape his legacy.
But I sometimes found the narrator's presence awkward (I had to keep notes to remember who Philip was and why he was in Dyer's apartment snooping and eavesdropping), and for my tastes it could have been a little shorter.