J.D. Salinger’s legendary reclusiveness during his time on earth made him into a larger than life figure – an icon, really. So it’s no surprise that people are naturally curious about the blanks in his timeline, considering he stopped publishing in 1965 and gave his last interview in 1980. (He died in 2010.)
Already, there’s a non-fiction book and a companion film out there this fall that looks into the author’s mystique, and David Gilbert’s recently released & Sons is a thinly veiled look at the author’s possible life, considering that it’s about a reclusive New York author who hasn’t published a book in some time and, in a very Pynchon-esque move, has been rarely photographed. (In fact, the same author photo from early in his career graces the back covers of all of his books.) While & Sons is not a complete retelling of Salinger’s life, the parallels are there.
In fact, the mysterious author at the core of & Sons, named A. N. Dyer (or A.N.D., if you prefer), and his most legendary piece of work, a boarding school novel called Ampersand is, at one point, compared to Salinger and his most famous book, The Catcher in the Rye. Early on in & Sons, the following statement is made:
It seems to me you have Catcher in the Rye people and you have Ampersand people… I mean Catcher is excellent on a lot of levels, but it’s basically a character piece which stays stuck in the muddy bog of adolescence. That’s part of its charm, for sure, but that’s also its limitation, that teenage sentimentality. But Ampersand, man Ampersand explodes adolescence into its core existential parts and it keeps on expanding with you, year after year, right up until your last breath. To me, Salinger is a stray dog you want to adopt, but A. N. Dyer is a different beast altogether.
So you can draw all the parallels between the life of J.D. Salinger and the fictitious A.N. Dyer that you want, it seems, because & Sons is essentially a novel about reclusiveness, and how that purifies art and distills it into something honest and real. In fact, a large part of & Sons is about – to crib a term from Salinger’s famous novel – “phonies” who populate the publicity and New York authorial scenes, as well as the far more distant Hollywood, which is desperately trying to get Ampersand made into a movie much in the same way that that town has been chomping at the bit to get the real-life Catcher caught on celluloid. (A whole list of candidates ranging from Steven Spielberg to Billy Wilder to Samuel Goldwyn tried and failed to obtain the rights to the novel.)
In fact, a telling chunk of & Sons is set at a New York book launch party of a promising young new author and all of the vaguely fake people who attend the party, including a Hollywood actor likely more interested in getting high than being a part of the attendant hype of the launch. While this is hardly new territory – does anyone in their right mind who writes fiction or consumes it expect that the book publishing world (and, by extension, the movie-making business) is built on honor as opposed to good looks? – its inclusion in & Sons gives the novel a certain eastern seaboard heft, which leads one to conclude that New York might be a helluva town to visit, but you wouldn’t want to particularly live there.
But for all of this novel’s allusion to art – and there are plenty of references to both high-brow (& Sons is the umpteenth novel I’ve read recently that namechecks the work of American poet Emily Dickinson) and low-brow or recently pop-culture invested (yes, there are a couple of nods to the Harry Potter books) – the book is really a mishmash between the art of two New York-based Jonathans: Franzen and Lethem. The novel has that Franzen-esque quality as & Sons is about family and the bonds between fathers and sons, as well as wives and lovers, but, by exactly page 200 of a more than 400 page book, it turns into something out of the fabulism of Lethem’s work, as a science-fiction-y subplot about cloning rears its head (and is a little hard to take seriously, though author Gilbert seems to want the reader to do exactly that).
And & Sons is also a novel about death: it opens and closes with the funeral of two different people, one of whom is unexpected, in a bit of a twist ending for the book. Fancifully, & Sons is also about the death of integrity, as there’s a plot point around the fake recreation of Ampersand’s first draft as perpetuated by its author so that he can get a little extra money by selling off his papers and drafts to an archive for the highest sum possible.
A little more disappointingly, & Sons is also a novel about the bonds of friendship – but its treatment of this angle is a little more surface-based and doesn’t really plum to great lengths, other than by introducing a character to whom A. N. Dyer writes to throughout his life. The letters are reproduced in handwritten scrawl, so if I have any advice, it is this: If you plan to read this novel, buy it in hardcover. The reproduction of those letters might be hard to read on a Kindle or other tablet device. Even I, the slightly visually impaired – I wear glasses – had a tough time with the scrawl of the handwriting in these passages.
& Sons is also a novel that is worth more as parts rather than its sum. One of the book’s best passages comes in the middle as an uncle and nephew, roughly the same age being both late teenagers, scour Central Park looking for a particular hot pretzel maker whose creations are divine and to die for. In that sense, & Sons is really a book about – though it is about many, many things as alluded to above – searching for authenticity and quality, even in the smallest of places. And, yes, if I haven’t already mentioned this, it is a very flavorful tome about the wonders and pitfalls of living in New York: even the book cover presents a view of Manhattan overlooking Central Park, and the book succeeds as a capsule of a particular place in a particular time, post-9/11 and post-tragedy.
Where & Sons actually lacks is in the presentation of its novel-within-a-novel (Ampersand): this is supposed to be a classic work of art on par with Salinger’s greatest hit, but, to be honest, there are no pull quotes from this section of the book. As a whole, Ampersand seems to be quite banal, a book looking for a particular voice; its fragments do very little to hint at its greatness or importance in the world view of the book’s protagonists. Ampersand is & Sons weak core, and is completely implausible as a great novel – though, perhaps, its inflated sense of importance may play a role in the narrative about how works get canonized, and whether or not being from New York automatically qualifies a book as great to begin with.
Overall, & Sons is a novel that gets better as it goes along – it starts out a little dry and stale, and only gets interesting as the family of Dyer comes together and gathers to care about the author’s state of wellbeing. Part of this feeling is owed to the fact that & Sons is yet another book about pretentious New York writers – already, this book season has brought forth Kristopher Jansma’s The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, which is kinda about the same thing – and the lives of the well-to-do upper crust. So how much you admire & Sons hinges upon how much pretense you can stomach.
However, & Sons is an ambitious book with a multitude of character arcs, and it easily could have been double its length – indicative of how giddy of a pleasure it eventually becomes to read, if not for the introduction of various minor characters who may have a much more interesting and protracted story to tell. It’s ambitions may seal it as a candidate for the Great American Novel Within a Novel, for which it falls short, but, by the end of the novel, the reader begins to truly care about these flawed, if not well off, characters, and want to see them succeed, not as artists, but as human beings. And Gilbert certainly has a way with words, playing sentences at times as though they were breathless pieces of living jazz that spew out onto the page (one section near the very end is one long run-on sentence punctuated with dialogue from another character) and it is a joy to watch someone excel at his craft.
That Ampersand feels like a lesser work is baffling, though that may be the point, but & Sons does one thing and one thing well: it probes the silences in an author’s fallow period and proves that, even in the most self-imposed isolating reclusiveness, authors might have something valuable to say about the human condition. And that is the furthest thing from a “phony” emotion that the somewhat masterful & Sons ultimately mines. & Sons is an almost great novel about a supposedly great novel, and both Ampersand and & Sons have the same delirious effect: both leaving you wanting more, just for different reasons.