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“& Sons”: Pity a writer’s offspring

A novel about a novelist is a notoriously bad idea; it's hard to find anyone willing to defend the practice. On the other hand, since most of the people who read literary fiction these days are novelists (or aspiring novelists), the author of such a book can assume a base level of narcissistic interest on the part of his audience. Writers are fascinated by other writers, especially the great ones, and endlessly interested in the torments, real and alleged, of the creative process. Whatever they may say to the contrary, their hands reliably creep toward books that profess to do justice to both. David Gilbert's new novel, "& Sons," is a novel designed to burn their fingers.

It's the story of one father and several sons: two standard issue, one of murky provenance, and one wannabe. The father is A.N. Dyer, a Salingeresque figure, author of at least one classic account of boarding school angst and cruelty, "Ampersand," but also of thirteen other novels, many of which are cherished by avid fans. In his seventies as "& Sons" begins, A.N. shambles around a gently mouldering duplex on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, tended to by a faithful Nordic retainer named Gerd and hovering over his youngest son, Andy. He hasn't published a book for at least a decade: "It seemed a vital piece had gone loose in his brain and he could feel the bit rattling around, a temporal gear that had slipped its carriage and no longer stamped thoughts into proper words and sentences."

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