David Gilbert’s new novel “& Sons” is already being lauded as a contender for one of the best books of 2013. It is a novel about novelists, but also about fathers and sons, success and failure. Here, Gilbert reads (and types) a short and poignant story, adapted from a longer excerpt which you can read below.
From the Book, & Sons by David Gilbert. Copyright © 2013 by David Gilbert. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.
Andy thumbed through the fourteen books his father had recently sent. While he was embarrassed to have only read Ampersand, he had skimmed the others and for the most part enjoyed the writing. The man on the page seemed so conﬁdent, so sure and settled, unlike the man in the ﬂesh, who could stare at Andy like he was the only route toward salvation. “You are a wonderful boy,” his father would say. “I just want you to know that I love you, very much.” Maybe it was sweet. Maybe it somehow repaired the damage of his own upbringing and shored up the ruin of his ﬁrst go-around as a father (classic fatherhood, the sequel, behavior). But for Andy the neediness was exhausting. His dad called him multiple times a week, always on the verge of stumbling into tears. He had no true friends. He couldn’t sleep. He was anxious. He was old. He missed his wife and his other sons. Christ, the guilt. Oh, and he was in constant pain. “Thank God I have you,” he’d conclude. “Otherwise, well, what’s the point?” It was no fun being someone’s reason to live. Andy hungered for the A. N. Dyer of the blurbs, of the precise prose and biting humanity, who began Dream Snap with her than one of those seed-filled tubes with holes and perches, his wife insisted on a miniature bird pavilion, two hundred dollars plus installation, which in her perfect world would attract Blue Jays and Cardinals, but in reality only charmed the crows who screeched like witches until Avery Price, on the sixteenth of July, chopped the fucking thing down.
Where was that man with the axe? Andy ﬂipped the book over and read the familiar quotes, the snippets of reviews. Was his father really so different thirty-plus years ago? “Dyer is savage and funny and oh- so-human, and this book might be his knockout blow. Ladies and gen- tlemen, we have a new champeen, perhaps the greatest of his generation,” said Anthony Kunitz from The Washington Post. How was the man in that author photo even related to his father? Whatever sly humor had dried up and what was left behind was a husk. Even his best days seemed like a nervous performance from an understudy. Of course, Andy knew the backstory; knew his status as the result of a May-December affair; knew his birth was a secret until his mother’s untimely death forced the issue of paternity; knew his sudden arrival as an eight-month-old wrecked the Dyer marriage and resulted in a minor scandal—he knew these things, he was spared no detail, but a long-dead mother, bitter half brothers, a frail and increasingly unstable father, was nothing when compared to his normal, everyday emotions, which had all the qualities of spin art: thrilling in movement, uninspired at rest. Andy stared at the old photograph of his father. A. N. Dyer was good-looking in the style of those vintage pictures where everybody shimmered by dint of their bad habits, and while Andy had similar dark eyes and shared the same thin lips, the rest of his features seemed lumpy with adolescence, as if every night a pair of tiny ﬁsts pummeled him raw.
Near the bottom of Dream Snap he spotted an Internet address: www.andyer.com. Discovering this seemed as reasonable as discover- ing a tattoo on his father’s neck. Computers were hardly his domain, and the idea of his own website was beyond laughable. Andy plugged in the URL. The loading icon was a cardiograph and after the red line had fulﬁlled its journey the screen formed into a Saul Steinbergian view of A. N. Dyer’s world. Every landmark was a link, to his novels, to his biography, to his awards, to his upcoming events (an almost sardonic blank), to a handful of essays, even to that rare interview in The Paris Review that Andy had read in his early teens, when he was ﬁrst curious about his father’s career:
A. N. DYER
I don’t believe in the romance of writing, in inspiration, in characters taking over, in any of that sham magic. I know exactly what I do. I sit alone in a room all day, those days starting mostly at night, and I chip away until there’s a likeness of a book on my desk, about yay high.
The website was an obvious selling tool, so there was some sense here, but the email address that popped up after clicking on the contact moon seemed plain silly. As a joke, Andy sent him an email:
This can’t be you. Last time I mentioned email you thought I was talking about a boy named Emile. Anyway, hello whoever you are. Your unrelated son, Andy.
Later that day, he got a response:
The question is: Is that really you?
Yes, it’s me. Notice the Exeter address. But this can’t be you. I imagine you trying to write an email right on the screen, with a ballpoint pen, then stuffing the whole computer into a manila envelope. Technology, huh? Amazing. Anyway, still me and still can’t be you.
No, it’s me. I have embraced your friend Emile, if gingerly. I guess at this stage it’s nice to know that people still care about my work, that it means something to them. You tend to forget, especially as you get older and forget so much. Mostly they ask what I’m working on (none of your business) or if I might sign some books (no chance) or be interviewed (god no) or have a quick cup of coffee (you’ve got to be kidding). People are so lonely. A few ask about specifics in the books. Misogyny has been mentioned. One person thought I was dead. Another claims I stole all of his ideas, which is likely true. A vast
majority simply tells me how much they love this or that or they parrot a favorite line or tell me I wrote their lives, that I must have installed a tiny listening device in their brain. It’s been so long since I’ve been faced with, dare I say it, fans, that I failed to remember the reason I stopped responding in the first place—you very quickly start to despise them. Odd, how it works. They compliment you and you want to strangle them with their tongues. Anyway, how’s school?
Andy read and reread the email, even printed it out twice, the ﬁrst time not quite sharp enough. It must be him, he thought. This was by far the longest piece of correspondence he had ever received from his father, who normally preferred Post-it notes attached to an article or a book. In the writing he heard the echo of his authorial voice, strong and unsentimental and, best of all, for Andy alone. It was like a ﬁrst game of catch.
You have your fans here too. People come up and ask me about you and I don’t know what to say and I just kind of stand there and mumble and hope they’ll lose interest and walk away. I think they must think I’m a jerk. Or possibly brain damaged. You can’t win. Like with your name. Sometimes I feel like I’m dropping your name even if it’s my name too and I feel like a loser, like I’m using you, like I’m so insecure I need a hit of your fame. You become a means instead of a plain old Dad. Even worse, everyone assumes I must be a genius like you.
I still don’t like Exeter much. In fact, I hate it more.
I’m glad you have email now. Have you heard of instant messaging? My God, do you text? Blog? Facebook? Tweet and Tumble and Flickr? Pittypat? (I made that last one up.) A
It was exciting, and scary, to communicate with his father in this way, but it also seemed safe and self-contained, without the fear of a quick rebuttal or a stupid thing said, just the words themselves. And maybe for the ﬁrst time in a long time Andy enjoyed writing. He spent an hour on the above reply, tinkering with the style, the voice, the rhythm, trying to re-create himself on the page, this son who might stand before his father. And he liked this Andy. This Andy seemed smart and funny and open. And then, this Andy was crushed.
I need to stop this. I am not your father (forgive the reverse Darth Vader). My name is Jeanie Spokes and I work with your father’s agent. I am so sorry. I thought you were joking. Not true. I thought if I
could fool you, I could fool anyone. I’ve been in charge of your father’s email for the last couple of months, creating a master list of his readers for marketing and publicity purposes, and sometimes, well, I answer a few. I know it’s wrong wrong wrong, it’s downright fraud, but I’m very respectful and people seem to appreciate the replies and I have to say there’s a real hunger out there for your dad. I’m sorry, that’s no excuse. I really like this job and I’m only twenty-four but if you need to tell someone, I understand and I won’t hold a grudge or anything. I should get fired. BTW, I went to Dalton. I hear Exeter is like crazy hard unless you’re a brain. I love your dad’s books. You sound sweet. Again I am so sorry and whatever you do, I totally understand.
Forever ashamed, Jeanie Spokes
PS. I love IMing. Pittypatting as well.