Thursday, August 8, 2013

Book Review: "And Sons" by David Gilbert

"Fathers start as gods and end as myths and in between whatever human form they take can be calamitous for their sons."

So says Philip Topping, near the start of And Sons, David Gilbert's emotionally rich if overstuffed novel about familial relations, primarily fathers and sons. The death of Philip's father, Charles Henry Topping, is not much of an event by New York standards—except for the appearance of reclusive write A.N. (Andrew) Dyer, Charles' oldest friend, who is persuaded to deliver his eulogy. But the eulogy deliver doesn't go quite as well as Andrew hoped, and fearing his own impending physical and emotional decline, he decides to make amends with those whom he has harmed, in particular his two older sons, Richard and Jamie.

Andrew summons both sons home to his New York City apartment, to join him and his youngest son, Andy, whose illegitimate birth 17 years ago tore apart their family. Richard, an aspiring screenwriter and full-time drug abuse counselor who escaped to California years before, comes home with his own family in tow, as well as some interesting plans that involve his father's capitulation. Jamie is a wanderer, who has spent many years traveling the world as a documentary filmmaker chronicling human suffering, but his own life is far from steady, as he finds himself haunted by a project involving a former girlfriend. And high school senior Andy is desperate both to understand his father better and lose his virginity (perhaps not in that exact order).

The family reunion, of sorts, brings to light many issues that have remained unsaid through the years, reopens old wounds, and uncovers a secret that Andrew has kept hidden for many years. He is determined to make things right with Richard and Jamie, and try to ensure both his literary and familial legacies are strong. But things have a bizarre way of spinning out of control, in many different ways, as the characters begin to confront Andrew's mortality.

At its core, this is a well-told (albeit somewhat familiar) story that is emotionally compelling, with flawed and not-entirely-sympathetic characters that make you want to keep reading. But Gilbert wasn't content to tell just this story—he had to throw in commentary on the fleeting celebrity of the literary world, a crazy scientific twist that will make you say, "Are you kidding?", not to mention the decision to have the unexciting Philip narrate the book (and share his own life struggles) really bogs the plot down from time to time. It seemed hard to believe this chronicler could always be at the right place at the right time to know what was happening.

The bonds between father and son are complicated ones, and many novels have explored them over the years. And Sons is an interesting and well-written addition to this genre of sorts; I just wish that David Gilbert had stuck more to the core of his story, which had so much merit, instead of trying to throw everything but the kitchen sink into his plot. It almost seemed as if he didn't trust Andrew Dyer to anchor the book as much as the other characters didn't trust him, but that's where the story truly was.

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