As if the complex relationship between fathers and sons weren’t enough for a novel, David Gilbert (“The Normals,” “Remote Feed”) thickens the soup in his latest, the simultaneously funny and heartbreaking “& Sons,” by introducing a main character who bears more than a passing resemblance to America’s most famous literary recluse, the late J.D. Salinger. In “& Sons,” Gilbert gives us A.N. Dyer, a famous novelist (best-known for his first book, “Ampersand,” which sounds a lot like Salinger’s classic “The Catcher in the Rye”) who has published nothing new for many years and, now elderly and in poor health, has largely withdrawn from public view. His relationships with his three sons, all of whom labor in his shadow, are problematic, if not oedipal.
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As the book begins, Dyer’s best friend, Charlie Topping, has died — the tale is narrated by Charlie's son, who has his own paternal issues with Dyer, whom he has idolized and tried to emulate for decades, and Dyer finds himself pondering his legacy, literary and otherwise. In the process, Dyer is laboring to reproduce a lost manuscript — which gives Gilbert the opportunity to engage in some Salingeresque ventriloquism.
Printers Row Journal caught up with Gilbert, 46, for a phone interview from his home in New York City. Here's an edited transcript of our chat.
Q: The book has two main elements: on the one hand, the relationship of fathers and sons, and on the other hand, a reclusive writer who will obviously remind many readers of J.D. Salinger. How did it occur to you to put those two things together?
A: Well, first of all, I'm a father. I have three kids, 11, 10 and 5.
Q: Are they sons?
A: The oldest is a son. The other two are daughters. I was really nervous about having a son, actually. I wanted to have a daughter first, because I thought that would take some of the pressure off the whole father-son relationship, but it didn't happen that way. And my own father is almost 80, so when I see my father and son together, it's like being in a time machine, in a way — these two people from totally different eras, but they're connected. So the issue of fatherhood was on my mind. And I had an old short story about a famous writer who was trying to figure out his last words and knowing that his assistant, who was also going to be his biographer but was very forgetful, would screw it all up.
Often when you're thinking about what you're going to write, you have one idea, but you think, "That can't sustain a full, big book." And then you have another idea, and you think, "Maybe I can marry those two." And then sometimes you get a third idea, and think, "Wait a second — I can put them all together!" Then suddenly you've got something. in my case, the third thing was the idea of the writer having to rewrite his greatest work of fiction because it got lost. Overall, you could say the book is about reproduction.
Q: Is your relationship with your son different from that with your daughters for reasons related to his gender?
A: Oh, sure. I live in New York, which means limited living space. Girls are great insofar as they don't take up a lot of physical space; they take up a lot of psychological space. They live in their heads more, so you can give them a piece of paper and a pen and a ball of string, and they're going to come up with some sort of game. Boys, on the other hand, take up a lot of physical space. So my son is constantly in need of activity — of having a ball thrown at him, or some game being suggested; he always needs entertaining, and kind of looks to the outside for that, which is often to me. It's my favorite thing to do, so it's not too much of a chore, but certainly it can be exhausting.
Q: How do you entertain him?
A: It's mostly sports. We'll go out to the park and throw a ball around. I take him to the hockey rink. I always thought I'd take my kids to museums and things, but they aren't as interested in that, so far, and you can't force it on them.
Q: Do you already have father-son issues?
A: Right now, not so much, but it's inevitable, right? I'm sure it's coming down the pike. Of course it's very different from my relationship with my father, and that's mainly generational. My father was raised in an era when all of the child-raising was done by the mother, and you would participate with your dad when you were old enough to do the things that he liked to do. With my son, it's more about me doing what he likes to do, and feeding that, because you want them to love something.
Q: In your novel, a lot of the father-son issues revolve around competition — the need to find one's own place in the world independent of your father, which is complicated here by having a famous father.
A: Yes, and then trying to do what your father did, which, if he was successful at it, is particularly difficult.
Q: Is your son, by the way, evincing any literary inclinations?
A: Too early to tell.
Q: If he doesn't, would that please you?
A: You know, it would be like if he said he wanted to be an actor. It's a great, interesting life in which to explore who you are, and it opens you up to the world, but it also opens you up to a whole lot of disappointment and rejection. It's a hard path to go down. If he has the fortitude for it, absolutely. But I wouldn't ever push it on him.
Q: One of the sons in the book, Andy, says of his father that it's no fun to be somebody else's reason for living. Does that resonate with you in any direct way?
A: Well, my dad worked a lot, and he let my mom do most of the child-care stuff. He's of that generation where fathers didn't talk a lot about feelings. But once he retired, he opened up a lot more, and now we have a great relationship. What's tricky is that my father is getting older, and as your parents get older, there's so much more that you want to say, things that are important — not in a maudlin way, you know, but life's getting shorter. What I tried to get out in the book is that the fathers and sons haven't done that basic communication work up to this point. So when you get to the moment where you're talking about the big stuff, it's almost impossible to even approach the subject, because you're not equipped to have that conversation.
Q: Are you, like most people, fascinated by the Salingers and the Thomas Pynchons of the world?
A: Oh, yeah. Salinger is particularly interesting because "Catcher in the Rye" is often your first real taste of a book that speaks to you. But the way he disappeared, and that whole idea of, you know, what's he been doing this whole time? And the rumors that he writes every day, eight hours a day, all these manuscripts piling up? — that idea is as intriguing as any Hollywood movie. Pynchon I was always interested in, because I knew that he lived in Manhattan, and I knew that he could be waiting in line at a movie or the deli. That could be Thomas Pynchon standing right next to you!
Q: Any theories about why Salinger withdrew from the world as he did?
A: Sure. There are two scary things you can tell a writer. One is, "I'm reading your book." The other is, "I've read your book." So if you're universally beloved for a book you write, you know what kind of a person you are, and you know the incredible disconnect between The Author and yourself. And if you're getting people who are obsessed with you, who love you because of what you've written, I think it kind of makes you hate yourself a little bit. Because you know you're not that person, and that it's just a big scam, that you're fooling people.
And the more you go down that hole, and if your ego is at all fragile, it's a real problem. A Norman Mailer, it wouldn't matter; it would just pump him up more. But if your ego is a little more delicate, like a Salinger, it's going to wreck you. And so I totally get why he had to disappear. I think every time someone said a nice thing to him, he hated that person, and he hated himself. That's an impossible situation, and that's why he had to get away from people, because it just eats you alive.
Q: How's your ego?
A: I'm sort of in between. I have a great wife, a great marriage, and three kids, so it's like I have a world outside my writing that is pretty full. So my ego pretty much circles around my family. As for the writing, I can handle reading reviews from major outlets, stuff like that. If it's Publishers Weekly or whatever, it's like, "OK, that's part of the business of writing." But reviews on Goodreads or Amazon, I can't do that, because it will crush me to see those. People saying things about your book, two-star reviews — you go, "My God, that's going to ruin my day." If you're lucky enough to write something and get it out there for people to read, it's like, ugh! Be careful what you wish for.
Q: As publication day approaches, then, do you feel your anxiety rising?
A: I'm more curious than anxious, I would say. At the same time, you spend so much time writing and not getting any attention, and then when the book comes out, it's like, "I don't quite know how to respond." My tendency is to be self-effacing, and if someone says, "I love your book," my tendency is to say, "Oh, you don't have to say that," but then you're not honoring the fact that they liked your book. So sometimes it's best just to say "thank you" and shut up.
By David Gilbert, Random House, 458 pages, $27