August 5, 2013 10:59 AM EDT

Writing a novel about the author of a brilliant, iconic, Salingeresque novel puts one in the awkward position of having to present the bits of novel-within-a-novel that appear in the novel-about-a-novelist as themselves brilliant, iconic and Salingeresque. Whether they are or aren’t, the reader can’t help but feel a little coerced. & Sons, by David Gilbert, doesn’t solve that bind, but it isn’t sunk by it either. It’s an immensely clever book about one A.N. Dyer, the acclaimed author of a (fictional) novel called Ampersand, and his three sons Richard, Jamie and Andy.

When we meet Dyer, he’s an old man in failing health trying to make sense of his life and make peace with his children, to whom he has been an indifferent and intermittently monstrous father. The sons are less successful than the father but are quite a bit more appealing, and Gilbert’s account of them careering around New York City, raising merry hell, their oedipal wounds on full display, is studded with mots and entire paragraphes justes. (“The brothers smiled and shook hands as if a net divided them. Despite everything they were the only ones who knew how to play certain games.”)

If the patriarch of the Lambert family had been a writer rather than an engineer, The Corrections might have read a lot like & Sons. For all that, I found it hard to love Ampersand as much as the characters in & Sons did, and by the end of the book, all that frenetic psychological chaos still felt incompletely digested, as if Gilbert understood Dyer’s life only slightly better than Dyer himself did. It’s a grand book, even extraordinary; one just wishes it had a couple fewer ampersands and maybe one or two more periods.

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