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“The Catcher in the Rye”) who has published nothing new for many years and, now elderly and in poor health, has largely withdrawn from public view.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?