****& Sons


(photo: Leo Reynolds, creative commons license)

By David Gilbert – This 2014 novel was named a “best book of the year” by many reviewers, and it’s full of richness on every page. A literary novel in every sense, it’s about an aging Manhattan author and notorious recluse, A.N.Dyer, whose failing faculties compel him to call his sons to him and in other ways try to straighten out the tangle he’s made of his life.

His two older sons are estranged both from him and each other. Jamie is a filmmakers living on the East Coast who’s just completed a dubious project documenting, perhaps too rigorously, life’s final decay. Richard is a struggling Los Angeles-based screenwriter, who has the prospect of long-awaited success dangled in front of him if only he can deliver the impossible-to-get film rights to his father’s first and most important novel, Ampersand.

The third, much younger son, is 17-year-old Andy. (You’ll have noticed A.N.Dyer, Andy, Ampersand, and the book’s title). Andy is ostensibly the product of a liaison between Dyer and a Swedish nanny. The arrival in the household of baby Andy and the story of his conception ended Dyer’s marriage. But the real story of Andy’s origins are more significant than anyone but Dyer knows, and he’s summoned Jamie and Richard to New York to tell it. And to enlist them in ensuring to Andy’s future welfare, should he die.

Throughout, as a sort of shambling Greek chorus is Philip Topping, son of Dyer’s oldest friend, Charlie, whose funeral opens the book. Philip is the same age as the two older sons, and they’ve obviously never had much use for him and still don’t, even though he’s ensconced in Dyer’s East 70th Street apartment, the flotsam washed ashore from a foundering marriage. Topping is a “Mr. Cellophane”; they look right through him and never know he’s there. Or, as Philip himself says, “I’m guilty of easily falling in love, of confusing the abstract with the concrete, hoping those words might cast me as a caring individual and dispel my notions of a sinister center. I believe in love at first sight so that I might be seen.” But the Dyers don’t see him, even when it’s necessary they should.

Dyer’s clean-up of his affairs includes selling his papers to the Morgan Library, and they, like the Hollywood manipulators, are interested in Ampersand. They will sweeten their offer considerably if he includes a draft of it. Alas, he destroyed all the drafts years before, so is pushed into the insupportable position of having to retype the whole manuscript, inserting awkward phrases and misdirected text, which he crosses out to arrive at the version in the published book.

It’s a very New York book, with apt references not just to places and events but to the way the city and its citizens go about their business. All this seems sly and perfectly grounded. Here are a few sentences from the Morgan Library rep’s pitch to Dyer:

In my biased view, we are the intellectual heart of this city. A visitor from another planet would do well to visit here first in order to understand our human narrative. We also have a tremendous gift shop.

Dyer’s agent then suggests they’ve been approached by the University of Texas’s Harry Ransom Center with a much more generous offer, and receives this response, which manages to insult everyone:

If money’s the bottom line, we can’t possibly compete. Ransom and their ilk will always win. And they are a fine institution and Austin is a fine central Texas town. But if you want to maximize profits, may I suggest breaking up the archive and selling the pieces in lots. But if respect, sensitivity, geo . . .

Philip Topping is everywhere and nowhere in the book, as its part-time narrator. It also includes excerpts (freshly typed!) from Ampersand—a vicious tale indeed—correspondence between Dyer and Topping, senior, from childhood on, and texts between Andy and a young woman he’s hoping to seduce. Full of humor, human foibles, and beautiful writing—“seductive and ripe with both comedy and heartbreak,” as NPR reviewer Mary Pols said—it’s a book that flew under my radar, but which I’m glad I finally found.

Bonus: A History of the 27th Letter! The Ampersand!